Before the Celtics' final game of the 2008-09 season, Doc Rivers was asked if this was enough. Was it enough to win 62 games, beat back the Chicago Bulls in an epic seven-game series and take the Orlando Magic to another grueling seven-game series without their best player and best backup big man?
It’s a question that Celtics fans have debated on talk radio, in casual conversation and on blogs. What was enough, because if we we’re being honest here, no one would have given them even a puncher’s chance in a conference final against Cleveland, and with the understanding that a championship probably wasn’t in the cards…
“Our (title) defense has been noble all year,” Rivers said before Sunday's Game 7. “That’s for you guys to decide. That’s always for you guys.”
Well then, yes. It was enough. It was enough for the Celtics to start the season with a 29-2 record, hold off the Magic in the regular season and fight through two seven-game series without Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe. It was enough to ask Paul Pierce to play to the point of exhaustion and have Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins develop into at best future All-Stars and at worst significant core players for the future.
The Celtics don’t measure their successes by anything less than championship banners, but if you wanted to see a team get everything out of their ability and push themselves to their absolute physical limits, then yes, this was enough.
It would have been a nice cherry on top if they could have found a way to get past Orlando, and at least give an honest effort against the Cavaliers. But as it turned out, the Celtics picked the worst time to play their worst game of the playoffs in getting eliminated by the Magic, 101-82.
“Clearly, we didn’t play well,” Rivers said. “I thought we had the right spirit; (but) we missed lay-ups, we missed free throws. But I told them it’s my ninth, 10th year -- I don’t know how many years this is coaching -- and this is one of my favorite groups as far as how they fought. A lot of reasons for them, I thought, to give up. You know with the Kevin thing and the Leon thing -- and they never did. So, really proud of them.”
Rivers was right about a lot of things in that statement. No, the Celtics didn’t play well in a Game 7. And you could make a very convincing argument that they actually lost the series in the fourth quarter in Orlando in Game 6. Yes, the Celtics missed a lot of easy shots that could have made a difference, and yes it was both his ninth and 10th year in the profession as Rivers was unfortunately fired in Orlando after only 11 games in 2003.
But the key thing is that the Celtics team that took the floor for the postseason bore very little resemblance to the one that gathered in Waltham way back in October. Garnett was gone, and with him went the defensive presence that has become their trademark. Powe was gone too, and with him went their best low-post scorer and much of the firepower from the second unit.
That’s a lot for a team to absorb, and the Celtics clearly struggled to find their identity in this postseason. While you might have wanted one more round to this season, the Celtics gave you essentially what they had to give.
1. KEVIN GARNETT WOULD NOT HAVE PLAYED AGAINST CLEVELAND
About an hour after it was all over, a very tall man in a sharp suit lingered in the hallway. He was not in a mood to talk.
“I look forward to seeing you guys next year,” Kevin Garnett said to a handful of reporters ... and that was that.
Just as soon as he had appeared, Garnett walked back down the hallway to the locker room and disappeared. He will have his surgery at some point this summer, and chances are he won’t be seen again until it’s time for the next season to start.
Garnett’s presence loomed large over everything the Celtics did in the second half of the season even when he wasn’t in uniform. His aborted comeback brought new life and rejuvenation to the team, but as each deadline for his return came and went it became clear that it just wasn’t going to happen.
“You know, we were hoping,” Rivers said about Garnett’s status. “Obviously I didn’t think it would happen. Clearly that’s why we didn’t do surgery. I think that was not a secret. I still didn’t think there was any chance of it to happen. If we had won this series, I can tell you there was no way he was going to play the next series.”
With Garnett the Celtics were the best defensive team in the league and no worse than the third and possibly the best team in the NBA. Without him they were a team that couldn’t rely on their defense and thus couldn’t afford the random off night, like the one they had Sunday.
“Honestly, I believe we are the best team in the NBA still, when we have a healthy group of guys,” Pierce said. “I remember before the season, when people asked me if I thought we’d repeat and I said, ‘Yeah. We have a great chance, but only if we stay healthy.’ Unfortunately that’s the NBA. You have injuries. That happens. It sucks. Hopefully next year if we can be healthy I feel like we’re still the team to beat.”
2. THE CELTICS HAVE SOME DECISIONS TO MAKE
Garnett, Pierce and Allen will be back for 2009-10. So will Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins and Brian Scalabrine. But beyond that there are question marks up and down the roster.
Tony Allen is under contract but fell out of the final playoff rotation. Bill Walker showed flashes but he remains a work in progress and J.R. Giddens played in only six games. Mikki Moore and Stephon Marbury are unsigned, while Eddie House has an option for next season. The Celtics have rights on Gabe Pruitt, but he too was a forgotten man.
Because of salary cap constraints, the Celtics will have limited flexibility for their roster next season and most pressing of all is what to do with Leon Powe and Glen Davis.
“I want to be here in Boston,” Davis said. “If the opportunity arises somewhere else I’ll be there.”
Powe had knee surgery and his agent has reported that it wasn’t as drastic as it originally appeared, which is the kind of thing agents always say. There would seem to be a mutually-beneficial situation for the Celtics and Powe.
Davis, meanwhile, played about as well as could be expected once Garnett went down, and he had the kind of playoff season that usually invites a big offer from someone.
The NBA free agency shopping season figures to be a muted one as the league deals with the economic fallout and girds itself for the frenzied 2010 free agent season. With those parameters at play, what happens next is anyone’s guess, but the Celtics could do worse than bringing Powe and Davis back and filling in around the margins.
3. THE STEPHON MARBURY EXPERIMENT WAS AN INCOMPLETE
In what might have been his final game as a Celtic, Marbury played 14 minutes, missed three of four shots, had one assist and one rebound and turned the ball over three times.
Except for a brief shining moment in Game 5, Marbury did not make nearly the kind of impact the Celtics hoped he would, nor was he the distraction so many people thought he would become.
“He was great,” Rivers said. “He was behind the eight-ball. He didn’t have a lot of time to get it, but he was phenomenal off the court. He was great for us.”
Marbury said after the game that he was open to the idea of coming back and that he enjoyed his time in Boston, but he clearly feels that he can still be a premier player.
“Being a sixth man and coming off the bench is not a bad thing,” he said. “But I know I’m a starter.”
In the end Marbury never did play a single minute on the court with Garnett, his one-time Minnesota running mate, which sort of summed up his entire tenure with the Celtics. It just never happened the way people thought it would.
“What I did prove was I could come back after a year of not playing and I was able to play and compete, play defense,” Marbury said. “I wasn’t the 20-25 point scorer that I’m normally capable of being. I showed that I was able to take on a role and do something different.
“Everything is still there.”
Marbury said that he hasn’t spoken with anyone on the team about his future, but he added, “I love it here. I love playing basketball here. I’m just going to wait and see.”
4. RAY ALLEN STILL HAS SOMETHING LEFT
Ray Allen didn’t need to prove that he is still a great shooter, but it didn’t hurt that he finally had a breakout game against a Magic team that had turned him into a non-factor.
“His job the whole series was to not let me touch the ball,” Allen said of J.J. Redick who played the unlikely role of Allen stopper. “He trailed me in every pin down, every pick and roll. He stayed connected to me. I got shots off over him but he always made sure he stayed connected to me so I thought he did his job. Team-wise, they did their job defensively and you got to tip our hats to them.”
Allen finally got it going in Game 7 but his 23 points weren’t enough to save the Celtics from elimination. Still, it was a nice reminder of the season Allen had in which he set career highs in several shooting efficiency categories.
Allen is under contract for just one more season and it sets up the possibility that 2009-10 might be a last hurrah for the Big 3 era. In general it is not good business to extend shooting guards in their mid 30’s, but Allen keeps himself in fantastic condition and as he showed this past season he is a long way from being done.
5. RAJON RONDO AND KENDRICK PERKINS ARE THE FUTURE
While he wasn’t as brilliant as he was against the Bulls, Rajon Rondo served notice during the playoffs that he is set for a long run of All-Star games and maybe is capable of even more. As always, he needs work on his jump shot because some day that blinding speed just won’t be there anymore. But for now he has cemented himself as a unique point guard in a league brimming with top-flight lead guards.
Kendrick Perkins is the block of granite to Rondo’s flash and dash. His game is as refreshingly old-school as Robert Parish’s and he showed in this playoff series that he can go toe-to-toe with the best in the league.
Dwight Howard had the statistical edge, but outside of Game 6, Perkins played him essentially to a stalemate and along the way a funny thing happened. Perkins started getting the benefit of calls. Most tellingly in this matchup, Perkins didn’t foul out once, and he showed not only his improved game, but also his maturity.
“You’ve got to keep improving each year,” Perkins said. “But I’ve got a lot of work to do this summer.”
They both do, but to have talent like that at both point guard and center under the age of 24 is perhaps the best outcome of this Celtics season beyond, of course, being healthy and truly competing for a championship.