I’m not a big believer in “eras”; at least not as clearly demarcated periods in a franchise’s history. I’m even less fond of talk about “windows closing” on a team.
Reality is a lot messier than that.
Each season is unique; even for teams with little or no roster turnover. Rosters change. Individual players change. Roles change. Rotations change. The league changes.
Some seasons, the changes are small. Other seasons, they are substantial.
Next season may include substantial changes for the Boston Celtics and it’s very likely those changes will center on Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
The next couple of weeks will be overrun with speculation about whether or not Pierce and KG will be wearing green come next October, but even if they are part of the roster next season, it is reasonable to expect that they will be cast in reduced, complementary roles. Other players like Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green and Avery Bradley will take on more prominent roles.
The identity of the team will change dramatically, just as it did 6 years ago when Danny Ainge, like an NBA necromancer, raised a championship team from the corpse of a once-great franchise.
Many observers think Ainge’s spell has worn off and the team is settling back into a grave.
I have no interest in eulogizing an era or writing Pierce and Garnett’s Boston Celtics obituary.
I am simply going to share some memories of the past six seasons. These moments aren’t necessarily the most important. They are just particularly meaningful to me. They are the moments that heralded the evolving identiy of the team and punctuated its journey through those years.
November 7, 2007
Eddie House hits a three pointer at the buzzer to give the Celtics a 77-38 halftime lead against Denver.
While, the Celtics 119-93 win over the Nuggets seems like a meaningless early season blowout win, it is etched in my memory as the first glimpse of what the team was capable of at the top of their game. House’s jumper capped one of the best halves of two-way basketball I have ever witnessed. The vise grip defense held Carmelo Anthony, and the high-powered Denver offense in check while unselfish ball movement fueled a balanced, and impossibly efficient offensive attack.
June 17, 2008
Kevin Garnett overpowers Pau Gasol for an “and 1” in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
For many, the signature moment of that series was the stirring 24-point comeback in Game 4 at the Staples Center that gave the Celtics a 97-91 victory and a 3-1 series lead. The 131-92 final score made Game 6 more a coronation than a contest, but Garnett’s basket and free throw (which gave the Celtics a 21-point lead) just before halftime stands out for me. Garnett took an entry pass in the lane and without hesitating went, not just at Gasol, but straight through the Laker big man’s chest with a half-dunk, half-hook. The play was emblematic of KG’s on-court fury and iron will and the embodiment of one of Doc Rivers’ pet phrases; “playing with force”.
February 19, 2009
Garnett strains his knee late in the first half against the Utah Jazz.
In the fall of 2008, the Celtics picked right back up where they had left off in Game 6 of the 2008 Finals. The blitzkrieg they had unleashed on the Lakers in the decisive 131-92 win was now turned on the rest of the NBA. A 19-game winning streak from mid-November to late-December left them with a record of 27-2 heading into a Christmas Day rematch with the Lakers. They would stumble a bit in late-December and early-January, but then ran off a 12-game win streak into February and were sitting on a league-best 44-11 mark when they traveled to Utah to face the Jazz.
Just before halftime, Rajon Rondo lobbed an alley-oop pass to KG – a play that had become one of the team’s signatures – that ultimately changed the team’s fate. KG strained his knee as he rose up to collect the pass, landed gingerly, and left the court immediately. Garnett’s status was an ominous "day-to-day" for what seemed like the rest of the season. The team still finished with a laudable 62-20 record but succumbed to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. That moment in Utah marked the Celtics transition from league-demolishing juggernaut to the tough veteran squad that could never be counted out.
November 22, 2009
Garnett hits the game-winning jumper to lift the Celtics to a 107-105 OT win against the Knicks in MSG.
The Celtics were battling the newly resurgent Knicks in overtime. Paul Pierce had scored all 7 Boston points in the overtime and the Celtics had the ball with 9 seconds left in a tie game. The Boston captain surprised everyone in Madison Square Garden by dishing the ball to KG for a 19-footer from the top of the circle as time expired. The play was a memorable example of how the unwavering unselfishness and symbiosis between the two veterans was the foundation of the team’s success.
May 22, 2010
Rajon Rondo hustles for the loose ball and layup in the 2nd quarter of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Magic.
The Celtics muddled through the second half of the 2010 season. They went 27-27 over the final 54 games to finish with a 50-32 record and draw the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. However, once the playoffs came, they rediscovered their identity. After dispatching the Miami Heat in 5 games, they shocked the NBA by dismissing Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 6 games. They entered the Conference Finals a dangerous team, but still an underdog against an Orlando team that had sent them home the previous spring.
Boston won two close games on the road to take a surprising 2-0 series lead and returned to Boston hoping to put the series out of reach. The Celtics’ hallmark resolve was on full display as they blew out the Magic 94-71. The moment that best exemplified that resolve came courtesy of Rondo. With just under 9 minutes left in the half, Tony Allen deflected a JJ Reddick pass into the Orlando backcourt and Rondo raced, and clawed past Jason Williams, dove for the ball, retrieved it and finished the play with a layup.
The moment marked the fourth-year guard’s ascension alongside Pierce, KG, and Ray Allen. Rondo certainly had a great postseason the year before, averaging almost 17-10-10 with three (nearly four) triple doubles as he tried to offset the absence of Garnett. It was, however, that moment against the Magic when Rondo earned his place among the Big Three with his display of will and reckless abandon.
November 11, 2010
Rondo dunks over Chis Bosh in a 112-107 win over the Miami Heat.
The 2010 offseason belonged to the Miami Heat. The gravity of Lebron James’ ‘decision’ and the assembly of a new "Big Three" created an NBA singularity centered on South Beach. Before a game was even played, the media was penning paeans to the impending destiny and bandwagon fans were erecting statues to the presumed dynasty.
The proud and battle-hardened Celtics decided they had something to say about it.
They beat the Heat in Boston to kick off the 2010 season and two weeks later were in Miami determined to prove that win wasn’t just opening-night jitters for the self-anointed King and his self-important court.
Rajon Rondo punctuated the Celtics statement. He shook old friend Eddie House on a pick and roll at the top of the key, drove to his left, and threw down a thunderous dunk as Bosh, the Heat’s erstwhile inside presence, stood under the basket helplessly.
June 5, 2012
Pierce hits a three-pointer in Lebron James’ face to steal a win in Miami.
The Celtics entered the 2012 NBA Playoffs as the fourth seed in the East thanks to a late run in the strike-shortened season. They advanced past the Atlanta Hawks after a six-game tug-of-war. They were fortunate to draw the Philadelphia 76ers in the Conference Semifinals after the Chicago Bulls lost MVP Derrick Rose and, with him, their first-round series. Boston outlasted Philadelphia in 7 games and earned the right to be swept by the Miami Heat in the Conference Finals – or so most analysts thought.
Not only were the Heat heavy favorites, injuries left the Celtics down to a skeletal 7-man rotation and veterans Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were hobbled. No one gave the Celtics a chance. No one, that is, except Doc Rivers and the Big Four.
After dropping the first two games of the series in South Beach, the Celtics sent a tremor through the NBA, and the Heat’s confidence, by evening the series with two wins in Boston. Still, heading into Game 5, most expected order to be restored in Miami, and for Lebron James to take control of the series.
Paul Pierce and the Celtics weren’t about to follow the script.
The teams battled back and forth through four quarters. Udonis Haslem hit one of two free throws to cut the Celtics lead to one heading into the final minute. Seconds later, Pierce rose to the occasion and left no doubt that the Celtics would not go quietly into that good night.
He took a handoff from Rondo on the left wing past the three-point arc and took a couple of dribbles to size up the MVP. Fearing a drive, James flinched. He backed up a half-step fearing a drive just as Pierce rose up and softly launched a shot that splashed through the net to put the game out of reach. The Celtics captain simply shook his head as he headed back to the bench shouting, “I’m a bad man!”
January 27, 2013
Garnett blocks Lebron James’ layup in overtime.
By any account, this past season was a disappointment. That willful pride was still there, but more often than not, it was overwhelmed by inconsistency, indifference and injury. The Celtics were three games under .500 as they entered a Sunday afternoon matinee against the Heat at the Garden.
An ominous announcement just before game time indicated that Rajon Rondo would miss the game. Then, at halftime, fans learned that Rondo was out for the season with a torn ACL. Resignation and regret swept over Celtic Nation, but Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce refused to surrender to what seemed inevitable.
Garnett had 24 and 11 and Pierce submitted a triple-double in a double-overtime 100-98 win, but the biggest moment came as the first overtime was winding to a close. The game was tied at 93 when Chris Bosh rebounded a Pierce miss with 35 seconds left. With the shot-clock winding down, Lebron James, who had sent the game to overtime with a three-pointer with seven seconds left in regulation, drove to his right. James was met at the basket by Garnett. KG blocked the shot and preserved the tie.
Hopefully Garnett and Pierce return for one more season.
Hopefully Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger return to full strength.
Hopefully Jeff Green continues his rise to stardom.
Hopefully Danny Ainge adds a few more pieces.
Hopefully, I can add to this list of memories.