HOUSTON — Kevin McHale was one cog in the Celtics’ first Big Three, the one that included Larry Bird and Robert Parish, the one that won three NBA championships in the 1980s.
But the Celtics — and namely Red Auerbach — allowed those three to age in Celtics uniforms, refusing to trade them for younger talent and other assets even when those three players were past their prime and injury-plagued.
It took the Celtics a decade to recover from that transition, and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who was with the Celtics from 1981-89, has said that, looking back, he would’ve made those deals sooner.
This offseason, Ainge lived up to his word, as the Celtics made a much quicker transition from their most recent edition of the Big Three by trading the last two members, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, to Brooklyn for draft picks and players. Ray Allen had left a year earlier to sign with Miami.
Given everything that happened, McHale, now the Rockets coach, looks back on the latter years, when he came off the bench in the final three seasons, and said he was still glad to end his career as a Celtic.
“I played hard there, loved it there,” McHale said Tuesday before his team defeated the Celtics, 109-85, at the Toyota Center.
“Back then was a little bit of a different era where they held on to players,” said McHale, who played all 13 of his NBA seasons in Boston, becoming the fifth all-time leading scorer in franchise history (17,335). “People finished their careers in one spot a lot more.”
And when describing these Celtics, McHale used terms that are very much applicable to the franchise during the tail end of his career in Boston.
“They made so many changes and they’re in the process of going from an older group trying to win a championship and trying to hang on to the last vestiges of whatever they could get together with that group, to all of a sudden going really young,” McHale said. “So it’s tough. It’s a big change. But they come out and they play very hard and they’ll get after it.”
Rookie Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who is nearly two decades younger than the 55-year-old McHale, recalled being a big fan of the Celtics legend when he was growing up.
Already this season, Dwight Howard has faced multiple teams employing the “Hack-a-Howard” strategy, sending the poor free throw shooter to the charity stripe.
“Yeah, I have an opinion on it,” Stevens said with a smile before the game, declining to give any other details.
Speaking generally, Stevens said “it’s something that obviously there’s a lot of different ways to stay in a game. It’s been something that has been productive and unproductive depending in the day.”
Howard went 4 for 8 Tuesday on free throws, and finished with 10 points.
Rest, then tests
The Celtics were able to enjoy consecutive days off earlier this week for the first time since their season tipped off Oct. 30 in Toronto.
They’ll need the rest with their upcoming schedule, which features four games in six nights in four cities.
The first test comes Wednesday against the Spurs in San Antonio, followed by a meeting Friday against the mighty Indiana Pacers at TD Garden.
The Celtics will hit the road for a two-game trip that starts Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta and concludes Monday against the Bobcats in Charlotte.
“If you look forward, you’re dead,” Stevens said, “so you just stay in the moment and you try to play in the moment as well as you can”
Stevens has fond memories of this city. Well, mostly fond.
Houston hosted the 2011 NCAA Final Four, where Stevens and his Butler Bulldogs played two games, winning the first against Virginia Commonwealth and then losing in the national championship game to the Connecticut Huskies in one of the uglier title games in history.
UConn won that game, 51-43, and Butler’s three 2-point field goals were the fewest ever in an NCAA Tournament game. The Bulldogs also shot 18.8 percent, the worst figure ever in a NCAA title game.
“I’ve never felt more disappointed for a group of guys . . . ” Stevens said. “Those guys will always be high achievers and the highest of performers. It was just one of those nights that you wish you had in December that we had in April.”
Stevens also said that team, which lost NBA lottery pick Gordon Hayward from the season before, was “the most overachieving group” he had ever been around after starting the season 14-9 to then going on a miracle run through the tournament.
“The easy part is to look at the downside of it,” he said. “The realistic part is to say, ‘We were in the national championship game. We were in the Final Four. We got to experience all that.’
“We did it with a group of guys who just came together, so all positive from my standpoint.”
Speaking of Butler achievers, Drew Cannon, 23, who was Stevens’s statistical guru before being hired in a similar role with the Celtics, was named one of Sports Illustrated’s “25-Under-25,” a list of “25 star performers in sports who are under the age of 25.”Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.