MIAMI -- Sometimes the story simply doesn’t end the way you had hoped and sometimes the surprise twist simply doesn’t deliver on its promise. For eight months, the Celtics played this NBA season for the sole purpose of avenging last year’s bitter defeat at the hands of the Lakers in Game 7 of the finals.
That was the reason Doc Rivers came back to coach them and from there the re-signing of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were essentially formalities. That’s why Jermaine O’Neal signed on and Shaquille O’Neal as well. Aging brothers-in-arms from another time and place in the NBA universe, loaded up for one more shot against the upstarts from Miami who had copied their blueprint, only with younger stars in their prime. It was a wonderful bit of drama with a neatly defined story arc.
It didn’t end the way the Celtics envisioned because the Heat came together a year ahead of schedule and because LeBron James and Dwyane Wade played like two of the best players in the world, which they are. It didn’t help that for the third year in a row a crucial player was injured at the wrong time. In 2009 it was Kevin Garnett. Last year it was Kendrick Perkins. This time it was Rajon Rondo, who may have a body like a Gumby Terminator, but even he has his limits.
Give the Celtics this much: They played on guts and toughness that have guided and protected them these last three years. But all those wonderful qualities simply aren’t enough when a player like James goes supernova like he did in the final minutes of a 97-87 loss in Game 5 (click here for a recap).
For 45 minutes or so, the Celtics outplayed Miami despite Rondo battling not only a dislocated left elbow but also a painful back injury that he said hurt him more than his damaged wing. But then James Jones sank a 3-pointer in transition and LeBron did what what LeBron does. Just like in Game 2 and a lot like in the overtime of Game 4.
“It happens,” Rivers said. “I’ve seen it. I’ve seen about all of it. It’s not the way you want to end a game, or a season.”
What makes this ending so tough for some to come to terms with is that the script changed so suddenly and dramatically. Nothing short of a championship would do for the people who have invested so much of their emotion in this team, not just this year but the last four.
For all the trials and tribulations, injuries and spring slumps over the last four seasons, this much was certain: The Celtics starting five of Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins had never lost a playoff series when everyone was healthy from beginning to end. If they couldn’t do it, so be it, but they all wanted one more chance to see if they could do it again.
Let’s get this out of the way: Perkins would not have been the difference in this series. The Heat played multiple smaller lineups that would have left him on the bench in crucial moments and besides, the Celtics got just as much from Jermaine O’Neal as they would have received from Perkins.
That in and of itself doesn’t mean the trade was a success or a failure. This is what I wrote at the trade deadline when Danny Ainge stunned the basketball world with the deal that sent Perkins and Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic:
"In dealing Perkins, Ainge is risking messing with the twin pillars that have served his team so well: defense and chemistry. There may have been no more together team in the league than the Celtics, and their unique bond was not forged by friendship and good feelings so much as it was built on trust and dependability.
"They fought together and just as often with each other, but there was never any real question as to whether they had each other’s backs. Perkins was a key component in their alchemy. He was the muscle behind the strut, and his perpetual scowl served as their public face."
Defensively, things turned out fine once O’Neal returned from knee surgery, but there’s no question that dealing Perkins upset some of that hard-earned chemistry and feeling of togetherness that oozed out of the Celtics locker room and served as the glue for this ever-diverse collection of personalities and basketball vagabonds.
In the final analysis of the 2011 season, the trade didn’t work. Krstic lost his way after a strong start and after a pair of knee injuries he was never able to get comfortable with what the Celtics were asking him to do on the court. Green provided a tease of talent and potential at times, but not much more than that and he was far too inconsistent.
In the long-term, the ultimate judgment will be reserved for how well Green adapts, the future first-round draft choice by way of the Clippers and how Ainge manages the roster going forward. The Perkins trade provided some measure of flexibility, but that is tied up in decisions that must be made on Green, who is a restricted free agent and Glen Davis, who is unrestricted, as well as the parameters of a new collective bargaining agreement.
That’s all very dry and doesn’t change the fact that when Perkins left, a chunk of the Celtics identity went with him. How much is open for debate and in the absence of any way to quantify an intangible, also entirely up to the observer. It certainly doesn’t help explain a season that was set up from beginning to end as a last stand.
It’s a business, as they say, but it simply doesn’t sit right that the Celtics we have come to know over the last four years didn’t get a chance to finish the job with all of their cast of characters. Still, even with Perkins, it’s hard to imagine the Celtics winning this series.
Talent, coaching and an ability to perform under the harshest scrutiny is what wins in the playoffs and in this series the Heat had more players, a better scheme and when everything was on the line, LeBron, Wade and even Chris Bosh made the plays and the Celtics didn’t.
Boston was on its heels from the beginning. Miami hit first in Game 1 and left the mighty Celtics talking about chippiness of all things. Bad call or no, it was Pierce who lost his composure in Game 1 when James Jones chopped him around the head and ultimately led to a dubious ejection. That the NBA later reversed many of the calls from that game was an unfortunate bit of business that reflected poorly on a league with too many officiating problems and not enough accountability.
Throughout the series, the Celtics seemed to be a step behind and even when they were ahead, that inevitable crushing run was lingering just around the corner. They had no answers for those runs. They played their best in one game, the third game, and even that was harder than a 16-point win should be.
“I know we gave a lot in Game 3 and I never felt like we could get that effort back from all our guys,” Rivers said. “The games did come quick. I don’t believe this team is done. We have to add some people. Other than that, I love the guys in that locker room.”
In a bit of a stunner if only because of the timing, Rivers said that he is leaning toward returning, and while he retained the right to change his mind, the pieces seem to be falling into place for one more run. Rondo and Pierce are signed for the next few years. Garnett has one more left on his deal. Allen, who has a player option, said he’s coming back. “I don’t have any plans to go anywhere else,” Allen said. As always, Rivers is the key.
“I want to put this on the record,” Rondo said. “Doc already committed to me and said he was coming back so he can’t go back against his word.” Asked what his career would be like without Rivers, Rondo responded, “I don’t even want to imagine. I really want him to come back.”
Things will have to change, however. The Celtics bench betrayed them all year long and unless they get players who can provide support for the big four, and not just relief, they will run into the same problems they had this year. Even when Rondo was relatively healthy, the big four was outplayed by Miami’s three and it’s not like the Heat, or the Bulls for that matter, are going to get worse anytime soon.
Perhaps against better reason and logic the Celtics remain completely confident that Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Garnett and Rivers have what it takes to do this again.
“We look at it probably as a failure this year not winning a championship, but the core will be here. We’ll be fine,” Rondo said. “Those vets aren’t regular vets. They do a great job of taking care of their body. They work the hardest on the ream as far as conditioning. I’m not worried about their health but it’s the [length] of the season so if we can get some young guys in here that can pick up the load in the regular season we’ll be fine.”
Simply signing more aging vets who want another chance to ride off into the sunset won’t do this time. Having dramatically altered their present back in February, Ainge will have to come up with something bold and dramatic this summer if they can recast their future and write a happier ending in 2012.