The Boston Celtics are out of the playoffs. Boston’s beloved Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have most likely played their last game together.
The three not only brought a championship to the city of Boston, they restored a winning legacy that had been gone far too long. Through the peaks and valleys, this group taught us not only about the game of basketball, but of life, loyalty and the unparalleled value of teamwork.
2008 was a magical year, when dreams came true and excellence was apparent every time the Green took the floor. Boston’s evisceration of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Garden to clinch the Larry O’Brien Trophy and KG’s subsequent “anything is possible” proclamation will go down as one of the great moments in Celtics history, and will be etched into the brains of Boston fans for years to come.
It’s almost impossible to explain how important that ring was for the Big Three. Pierce was the stubborn, yet incredibly talented scorer who would never grow up; Garnett was the freakishly intense seven-footer who could score at will, pass like a guard and defend like no one you’ve ever seen (but who ultimately would’ve been remembered as the guy who couldn’t win the big game); Ray Ray was one of the best shooters in the history of mankind, but would’ve just been like any other 20-a-game scorer after spending the majority of his career toiling away on miserable teams in Seattle and Milwaukee.
The ring changed all of that.
In a strange way, it made these guys, who at that point were all considered Hall-of-Fame locks, relevant. All of a sudden Pierce was an all-time great Celtic, the rare player who stuck with a fledgling franchise through thick and thin and eventually found light at the end of the tunnel. Garnett was immediately launched into the NBA‘s “Top 35 players ever” discussion. And Allen was the undisputed three point king after his magnificent Finals effort when he rained 22 threes on the Purple and Gold in just six games.
To say that this validated their careers might be an overstatement; nevertheless, the ring is what separates the good players from the immortal ones.
KG, PP and Ray are now immortal.
2009 was a whole different story—a frustrating year. KG’s knee injury put a damper on what, at the time, looked like a team destined to win back-to-back titles.
They eventually fell in seven games to the Orlando Magic, however, the toughness, resiliency and grit that those Celtics showed in taking an extremely hot Magic team to seven games—with Brian Scalabrine in the starting lineup no less—provided hope for 2010.
It was in 2010 that the C’s started to resemble the team that the Miami Heat knocked out on Saturday night. Rajon Rondo was morphing into the polarizing, do-it-all superstar that he is today and the Big Three were all of a sudden being referred to as “cagey veterans” instead of “future Hall-of-Famers.” KG practically played the entire season on one leg, and the Celtics were supposedly finished.
And that’s when that toughness, resiliency and grit propelled the Celtics to the most unlikely of title runs.
Rondo had an extravagant coming out party when he dropped 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists on an awe-struck Cleveland Cavaliers team in Game 4 of the second round of the playoffs. In fact, many experts point to that series as the tipping point for LeBron James‘ infamous decision to take his talents to South Beach.
The grizzled, wily veterans had knocked off the King with a little help from their budding, triple-double-waiting-to-happen point guard.
All the Celtics had left to do was knock off the defending champion Lakers, a different team from the one Boston defeated in 2008 because of the availability of oft-injured, but super talented, big man Andrew Bynum.
The Celtics had their own special weapon, though.
As head coach Doc Rivers liked to say, Boston’s starting five of Rondo, Ray, Pierce, KG and the ever-scowling Kendrick Perkins had never lost a playoff series together. The C’s shocked the basketball world by taking a 3-2 series lead on the heavily favored Lakers despite some brilliant performances from a vengeful Kobe Bryant and a Pau Gasol trying his best to shed the “soft” label.
Even past knee injuries to KG and New England Patriots stars Tom Brady and Wes Welker couldn’t prepare Boston fans for the horrible pit that formed in their collective stomachs after Perk crumbled to a heap in the first half of Game 6.
Even though the Celtics still held a significant advantage in the second half of Game 7, Perk’s torn ACL crushed Boston’s chance at a title with LA employing two seven-footers to annihilate the C’s on the glass.
One of the team’s emotional leaders and Rondo’s best friend, Perk’s presence was immeasurable by statistics or box scores. He was a part of the team’s soul, and when he went down, the team was no longer complete.
That cohesiveness, that togetherness, that unity, that every-guy-matters mentality is what allowed the Celtics to reach the Finals in the first place. It’s only fitting that it was what ultimately caused their downfall.
2011 brought new life. The Celtics signed legendary but aging center Shaquille O’Neal to help give Perk time to heal and provide Boston with their first legitimate interior force aside from KG in decades.
The season started better than anyone could have imagined with the C’s jumping out to a 30-5 record, with the Big Diesel having a revival of sorts. Of course, Shaq slipped on some ice, injured his hip and barely played the rest of the season.
Everyone knows what happened next: General Manager Danny Ainge inexplicably traded Perk for Jeff Green, and once again the Celtics were incomplete. They eventually fell to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat in only five games.
But not before Wade tossed Rondo to the ground, nearly splitting his arm in half. In typical Rondo fashion, he played through the gruesome injury and led Boston to a spectacular Game 3 victory—undoubtedly one of the greatest performances I have ever witnessed.
And finally, there was 2012. Celtic-haters rejoiced the end of an era, and analysts and experts alike gave the Stone Age old Celtics no chance.
The season began as everyone expected. Boston was struggling to score points, and bizarre heart problems for Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox were crippling the already-thin Celtics bench.
At the All-Star break, however, things started looking up for the C’s.
Doc wisely moved KG to center with Jermaine O’Neal’s season-ending injury, and an unlikely source of energy emerged with an injury to Ray Allen—Avery Bradley, the second year player out of Texas.
Bradley was superb defensively with lightning-quick feet, and even started hitting threes before a dislocated shoulder made it impossible for him to shoot.
With KG, Rondo and Bradley in the lineup, the Celtics had become the best defensive team in the NBA. Bradley’s injury in the playoffs was a huge blow to Boston’s championship aspirations.
Despite all the talk that Bradley’s injury would be the nail in the coffin for this team, they just kept chugging along. Every playoff game was painful to watch, even the exciting ones, but that was the Celtic way. They were going to grind and grind and grind and give themselves a chance in the fourth quarter.
And it worked too.
They knocked off the athletic Atlanta Hawks in six, and disposed of the upstart Philadelphia 76ers in 7, all the while Ray was playing on two bad ankles and Pierce with a sprained MCL.
They did it with heart, teamwork, determination and stellar play from KG and Rondo.
They did it together.
They rose up as a team, and they fell in seven games to the Heat as a team. There’s really not much more you can ask for from this group. They left everything on the floor and lost to a juggernaut, a team that employs two of the game’s best four players as well as the underrated Chris Bosh—the same guy who transformed into a long-range sniper for the majority of the deciding Game 7—killing any chance of a Boston miracle.
With the game already decided, an emotional Doc Rivers pulled the Big Three for the final thirty seconds. Ray and Pierce, feeling the magnitude of the moment, each approached the bench, hugging, slapping five or simply nodding at their teammates as well as the coaching staff before being interrupted by a quick word from Doc. I imagine a “thank you for everything” was in there somewhere.
Then came KG.
The emotional warrior, the selfless superstar who cultivated a winning atmosphere in Boston from day one and never looked back. Garnett looked exhausted. No matter—No. 5 sauntered over to the Celtics bench, enthusiastically hugging and chest-bumping his teammates like a captain or an older brother would.
When he finally reached Doc, the emotions all came out.
Neither of them cried, but they may as well have.
KG embraced Doc for a good seven or eight seconds, patting his back and bringing his head close to his. If Garnett was the Celtics’ staff sergeant, then Doc was the team’s lieutenant general. The two never clashed, and KG followed orders as well as he doled them out: with obedience, loyalty and a ferocity unseen in modern sports.
Garnett encompassed everything the Big Three era Celtics were about: defense, hard work, the ability to get nasty, and above all, teamwork.
This team didn’t want to win as much as they wanted to win together.
Like it says in the Celtics locker room, “Individuals win games, teams win championships.” It was a mantra these Celtics lived by.
The Big Three era in Boston may be coming to a close, but their style and mindset are still firmly entrenched in the team’s future. Rajon Rondo isn’t going to change because these guys may not be there anymore. He’ll still be the defiant, genius point guard with the insanely big hands and blistering first step.
He’ll still talk trash, just like KG taught him.
The Truth, No. 34, isn’t going anywhere. His loyalty to the Celtics organization is something rarely seen among players today.
And finally, there is Doc Rivers. The coach who figured out how to manage the egos of three superstars. The coach who not only taught his players, but learned from them as well. He raised them how they wanted to be raised, only he did it his way.
With the help of KG, whose obsession with defense was contagious, Doc turned Ray Ray and Truth, two notoriously one-way players, into formidable defenders. Pierce especially bought in to Doc and KG’s method, refashioning himself into one of the best wing defenders in the league.
Doc still has four years left on his contract and has quietly become the second best Celtics coach ever.
Think of a broken down house that needs fixing—that was the 2006-2007 Celtics. Then KG and Ray Ray came, demolished the old house, and rebuilt a mansion. Even though it’s five years old, and the floor isn’t as clean as it once was, and the shower doesn’t work as well as it once did, it’s still a mansion.
That’s what the Big Three era did for Boston.
They revamped an entire city. A city thirsty for a championship contender not only got their contender, they got their championship. And they did it the right way.
And above all, that is what we should take away from the Big Three era.
Doc said it best when he was asked to reflect upon the end of the Big Three era yesterday:
[They are a] great group, great team group. I know everybody will look at the Big Three individually — Kevin, Ray and Paul. I’m never going to look at them individually, I’m going to look at them as a group collective. They all gave up seven-plus shots each. They gave up minutes. I asked them to play defense and move the ball, and they all did it, and they’re willing to do it for the better of the team. So I think that’s what we should focus on, how much they gave up to try to win. That’s what I’ll remember most about them.”
This isn’t a time to be sad, angry or regretful over the missed opportunities here and there. It is a time to reflect on what was truly a golden age of basketball in Boston that may not be seen here, or anywhere else ever in the NBA.
That rare combination of players willing to completely sacrifice for the good of the team. That rare old-school style of play. Defense first, offense second. That feeling you get when you know your players so well that you can practically predict their each and every movement.
To quote the late, great Red Auerbach, “The Boston Celtics are not a basketball team. They are a way of life.”
Luckily for us, that way of life was the right way.
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