It seemed to be a signature ending for the Big Three. They were soundly defeated by the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last June, unable to compete in the final quarter after a spirited first three. A younger, more talented, and perhaps hungrier team had stolen the series by winning the final two games.
In that fourth quarter, Celtics coach Doc Rivers removed all of his veteran players, one by one, and each went through a series of hugs and handshakes, starting with Rivers, the leader of the franchise, the face of Celtics basketball. The Big Three Era had had a five-year run, resulting in one NBA title, another appearance in the Finals, and this run to the Eastern finals.
With Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen set to become free agents and well into their 30s, change appeared imminent. The Celtics faithful fully prepared for an offseason of adjustment, the organization taking a step back to potential mediocrity after five years of elite status.
But the Celtics instead took a surprising turn, adding eight players and re-signing Garnett, and they remain one of the East favorites as they head into the home opener Friday night against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Conventional wisdom said there was no way Garnett, playing on aging legs and tiring at the end of playoff games, would return. Allen, meanwhile, had grown increasingly unhappy with his situation in comparison with second-year guard Avery Bradley and wanted to explore free agency for the first time.
So the 2012-13 Celtics likely would consist of Rajon Rondo, perhaps Paul Pierce, and a bunch of pieces meshed together until the Celtics could attract a major free agent. But as free agency approached, the central figure in their quest to extend the Big Three Era was Garnett himself.
The future Hall of Famer, renowned trash talker, and fiercely private man held the fate of the team’s immediate future in his scarred hands. After telling team officials he was seriously contemplating retirement, Garnett re-signed for a mind-boggling three years, and the Celtics were retooling instead of rebuilding.
“I did give it some real thought,” he said. “With free agency coming up, I obviously didn’t want to think about another team or nothing like that. My retirement would have been a personal decision based on family or any other reasons I had.
“But my No. 1 reason for coming back was Doc, the guys, the city, the fans. I don’t know how Danny [Ainge] talked me into three years, but I’m enjoying my journey here.”
Because the season ended late, there was a small window for Ainge to determine the nature of the next year’s roster. And Garnett planned to wait until the eve of free agency to make his decision.
“I was open to anything, but I was prepared for a lot,” said Ainge, the team’s president of basketball operations. “But ultimately when we went through all of the different possibilities and options that we had, the best option for us was to try to get KG, Jeff [Green], Brandon [Bass], and Ray back. And that’s what we set out to do.”
Garnett respected the process. He told Ainge and Rivers he would decide by July 1, and because he was at the end of a contract of three years or more, the Celtics could contact him during the pre-free agency process. They couldn’t contact Allen.
“What made it a little bit easier for us was KG was the main piece,” Ainge said. “For a lot of reasons, but the replacement possibilities for KG were slim. We felt like that was big. If we get KG back, we have a chance of still being a good team.”
Roy Hibbert was the primary center available in free agency, but he eventually re-signed with the Pacers. If Garnett retired, the Celtics saw few options other than to hold onto their money. While Ainge worried about such possibilities, Rivers remained confident.
“I never thought he wasn’t coming back,” Rivers said. “There was a couple of days where you weren’t sure for a minute, but other than that, I was sure to my bone that he was coming back.
“I was more looking at all the other things. I thought we were going to lose Ray. The first name I put on [the wish list] was Jason Terry.”
Rivers called Terry at midnight when free agency began, thrilling the former Maverick, who agreed to a contract a few days later. But that came after Garnett agreed to come back.
Garnett’s decision was monumental to the team’s direction.
“When he signed a three-year contract, I felt like that guaranteed me another two years with the Celtics,” said Pierce with a laugh. “There’s a domino effect in everything that goes on. If KG doesn’t sign, Ray signs with Miami, they probably look to trade me.”
Pierce has one more year left on his contract, plus a team option.
“With KG re-signing, that just said that I’m going to be here,” he said. “I know Danny was like, ‘We’re trying to reload and trying to make another run at this,’ and [Garnett] was the first step in it. Once we did that, everybody knew the Celtics are trying to compete for a championship again. They’re not trying to rebuild when you sign KG to a three-year deal.
“I was very excited. I feel like we’re putting more talent on the floor than we have in quite some time.”
The Celtics were dealt a blow when Allen signed with the Heat, but they re-signed Bass, Green, and Chris Wilcox and added versatile guard Courtney Lee, along with Darko Milicic and Jason Collins. Ainge retained the team’s core (minus Allen) and rebuilt the supporting cast.
“I kept saying to everybody, I didn’t think we were going to fall apart,” Rivers said. “I thought we’d get Ray back and Kevin back and we were going to add somebody. A lot of times, the talk outside is not the same as the talk inside.
“Things could have gone the other way. We could have not signed Jeff and then we would have been in a hell of a lot of trouble. It just came our way. Things broke our way too, the fact that Kevin decided to come back.
“The good thing that I’m proud of over anything besides a title is Boston is a place that people come to now, and before it wasn’t.”
Garnett’s decision may dictate the course of the franchise for several years.
“KG was the key — not to say KG is more important than other players on our team — but there just aren’t big guys that are as good as KG,” Ainge said. “The replacement of KG is tough and we’re grateful that he wanted to come back and play.
“I think a lot did hinge on KG. We have some good young players but, yeah, we probably would not have been a contender had KG chosen to retire.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.