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on basketball

Celtics made painful decision to start over

Paul Pierce won’t retire a Celtic, nor will Kevin Garnett vigorously motion to the TD Garden crowd again.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Paul Pierce won’t retire a Celtic, nor will Kevin Garnett vigorously motion to the TD Garden crowd again.

Whether the Celtics’ faithful were ready or not, whether they wanted to see Paul Pierce retire a Celtic, or Kevin Garnett vigorously motion to the TD Garden crowd, or see the Big Three make one more championship run, they won’t.

The Big Three era is over, crashing down to rubble on a warm summer night in Boston, when president of basketball operations Danny Ainge completed the biggest deal of his tenure.

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Realizing the pressure to win disappeared with the departure of coach Doc Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers, Ainge took mere hours to go to work on a rebuilding plan, trading Pierce, Garnett, and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets Thursday night for Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Keith Bogans, Reggie Evans, Kris Joseph, Tornike Shengelia, and first-round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018.

For those who wished for Ainge to move forward with younger players, that process has begun in earnest. In a matter of three days, he has obliterated any semblance of last year’s team, allowing Rivers to go to Los Angeles, and then dealing Pierce and Garnett to a division rival.

Ainge surprisingly found a team willing to take a pair of aging players, and offer the Celtics the draft picks they wanted to build a foundation for the future.

It was the right move for the Celtics. There was not going to be a smooth transition to the next phase. Pierce wanted to play next season, and Garnett has two years and $23 million left on a deal he is determined to fulfill. Ainge said years ago there was no way he was going to relive the early ’90s, when the original Big Three were practically carrying walkers onto the court, getting passed by the Bulls and Pistons.

It was a crushing end to a glorious time. And Ainge was reminded of a couple of deals that Red Auerbach refused to consummate because of loyalty. Auerbach had a chance to trade Larry Bird back to his native Indiana for Chuck Person, Herb Williams, and Steve Stipanovich. He refused. Auerbach also could have sent Kevin McHale to Dallas for Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins. Again, no deal.

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Ainge could have allowed Pierce and Garnett to play out their contracts and then use the cap space, or get compensation for the Big Three now and the amass the same cap space.

The 2014 pick will almost certainly be late in the first round, but the ones in 2016 and 2018 could become high picks if the Nets backslide. It is not the ideal way to rebuild. That would be through free agency. But sooner rather than later, the Celtics had to do this. They had to pull the plug eventually, move forward.

Rebuilding in the NBA is difficult, and the Celtics had made some blunders in the draft over the past few years, so their foundation was minimal. For example, they ended up with a pair of 7-footers Thursday night — Kelly Olynyk and Colton Iverson — showing they have little planned for Fab Melo, whom they chose in the first round last season.

Change is painful, and the Celtics will be dramatically different without Pierce, his headband, the stepback jumper, and his appealing bravado. He overcame bouts with immaturity and selfishness to become one of the great Celtics of all time.

Garnett blended into the Boston fabric perfectly, adding a toughness and attitude the Celtics had lacked for years, and played until his knee required WD-40 to quiet the creaking. It was difficult to give up on Garnett because he had something left, but with the organization convinced they had to move Pierce, and with Rivers gone, it would have been almost unfair to run a 37-year-old Garnett out there on a 40-win team.

The trade is disheartening because the Celtics may slip back to irrelevance. The national television appearances will decrease. They’ll likely have Christmas Day off. That feeling of pride when the Celtics hit the road in those green uniforms will diminish.

It was a great run. Pierce, Garnett, and even Ray Allen should be applauded when they return to Boston. They brought the Celtics back to respectability. They were victorious, and harmonious for the most part. They played at a high level.

But eventually they couldn’t reach as high anymore. Garnett is now a 30-minute-per-game player, Pierce was exposed by the Knicks’ Iman Shumpert’s lockdown defense in the playoffs and was no longer a primary option. By trading them, Ainge avoided the mistakes Auerbach made more than 20 years ago.

And he officially kicks off a new era. We knew this day was coming, but really never hoped it would be so sudden.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe

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