I’m breaking away from the pop culture shit for this post, because my favorite basketball team — or core, whatever — of the past decade just wrapped its final run. This will be, purely, a basketball post.
They say that in sports, all that matters is the final set of numbers on the scoreboard: You either win or you lose. That’s it. Nothing else matters. While the part about winning-is-all-that-matters seems to hold true within society, how a team loses should be taken into account too.
Over the weekend, the Boston Celtics were eliminated from the NBA playoffs. In the overall 2013 NBA title landscape, their elimination changes nothing. They were not legit contenders. But in the grand scheme of the basketball universe — which includes individual legacies and NBA lore — the Celtics’ elimination was an important moment because it marked the end of an important era in modern day NBA.
Though nothing has been officially announced, it’s widely presumed that this Celtics core — or what’s left of it, really — will be broken up this offseason for a much-needed franchise reboot. Paul Pierce could be brought out; Kevin Garnett will likely retire.
The retirement of Kevin Garnett, one of the game’s 20 or so best players ever and one who re-ignited the prep-to-pro movement of the late 90s and early 2000s, is a big deal alone. But let’s examine these Boston Celtics and what they’ve achieved, not just for the city of Boston, but for the sport.
Yes, they only won one NBA title, which technically knocks them down to the bottom of the NBA winners club. But these Celtics impacted the league in two important ways:
1: The Superteam Movement
When Danny Ainge traded for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007 to team two hall of famers with Paul Pierce, that inevitably jumpstarted what would become known today as the “superteam” era. That unison of the three hall of famers — and the immediate success that came with it — inspired LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul to talk about playing together.
In the Celtics’ defense, their formation of the superstar trio came about in a more natural way — via trades instead of free agency — and the stars were at the tail end of their prime, which made it seemed a bit more “fair.”
2: Changing the entire defensive culture of the league
Under Tom Thibodeau’s defensive schemes along with Garnett’s defensive prowess and contagious rabid intensity, the Celtics dominated the NBA in the 2008 season with a stifling defense that would now be the blueprint for at least half the teams in the league: overload the strong side of the court; pack the paint with an extra defender; a hard set of rules for rotations. Thibodeau has since left the Celtics to become one of the most respected coaches in the league.
Aside from changing the very structure of the league and how defense is being played in today’s era of NBA basketball, these Celtics were a personal favorite of mine since 2007, mostly because I’ve been a fan of Paul Pierce for many years before that. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, I couldn’t say I was a huge fan, but I had always admired their game too.
It didn’t hurt that they embarrassed Kobe and the Lakers for their first title (I had been a Kobe/Laker hater throughout most of the 2000s).
As mentioned, KG, Pierce, and Allen were not exactly young when they joined forces in 2007, so the notion around the league — and even within the Boston organization — was that the team had a three year window to win. Unfortunately, a knee injury to Garnett derailed what would have certainly been a second championship in 2009 (the Celtics did, along with the Bulls, give us the greatest and most indelible first round playoff series ever), and in 2010, the team started showing its age.
They limped to the finish line of the regular season, playing just .500 ball after the all-star break and winning only 50 games overall. LeBron, meanwhile, was already on his best-player-in-the-league-by-far run, leading the Cavs to a 66 win season.
Everyone assumed the Cavs would win the east (and the Lakers, the west). SLAM had a Kobe vs LeBron cover before the playoffs started. Nike was so confident they started an ad campaign with puppet versions of Kobe and LeBron talking trash.
But then the Celtics did the unthinkable and ripped the Cavaliers apart, beating LeBron and the Cavs so emphatically in the final game that, for the first time that night, “LeBron leaving Cleveland” seemed possible.
The Celtics went on to meet the Lakers in the Finals. This Lakers squad was an improvement over the 2008 version that had their asses kicked by the C’s — Gasol had matured; Bynum was actually on the court; they added Ron Artest and got rid of Vladmir Radmanovich. The were, in general, younger, had the best player in the series, and had the better regular season. After the Lakers took game one, a Laker series win seemed a foregone conclusion.
But then Ray Allen did his Jesus Shuttleworth thing and hit seven three pointers in the first half of game 2, many of them in front of his on-screen father Denzel Washington, to lead Boston to victory at the Staples center. I remember the Staples Center crowd, moaning and grasping every single time Allen caught the ball with daylight. To this day, the Allen-has-daylight grasp from the crowd — any crowd, not just the LA one — one of my favorite sounds in basketball.
The Celtics fell behind 2-1 after game three, but won two straight to go up 3-2.
Ultimately the Lakers prevailed in a game 7 that saw the Celtics succumb to the Lakers’ younger legs, superior size/length (especially after an injury knocked out Kendrick Perkins) and having the best player in the series. Still, the Celtics fought and fought, hitting two huge three pointers in the final 40 seconds of the game — one by Allen, another by Sheed, to keep the game within striking distance.
They were already considered old in 2010 — talking heads had already wondered if the core should be split up even before the 2010 Finals — but the team kept going, kept playing through injuries, kept fighting off father time, and kept overachieving. In the 2011 playoffs, Rondo dislocated his shoulder in game three and somehow returned during the game, played on one arm, and ignited a Celtics rally over the Miami Heat. In 2012, the Celtics pushed an even superior version of the Heat to 7. Again, they went up 3-2, again, like 2010 Finals, they ran out of gas in the second half of game 7 after taking a first half lead.
I watched all seven games in New York City, the Mecca of basketball. New Yorkers mostly rooted for the Celtics, partly because of their disdain for LeBron, but mostly because the Celtics were doing their underdog-overachieving thing again. The Celtics had heart, and New Yorkers knew that. I remember it took LeBron dropping one of the most amazing games ever played to win game 6. I remember the Celtics jumping out to an early first half lead in game 7 as America wondered if they could pull it off. I remember feeling emotional during the final seconds of game 7, thinking that must have been it: Garnett’s going to retire, Jesus is going to leave. Pierce is going to be traded.
Well, Jesus did leave to South Beach. But Garnett returned, and Ainge stubbornly kept Pierce. The Celtics would struggle through, really, the first 85 games of this season, including the first three playoff games where they fell behind 0-3. They looked done, defeated. Then the Celtics won games 4 and 5, with the latter resembling a slugfest that had swung all momentum.
Following game 5, we could all hear the whispers: “could this Celtics squad force a game 7, and perhaps, win this series?”
They didn’t. They lost game 6. But in typical Celtics fashion, they went down swinging. With pride. The Celtics fell behind by 26 with about 9 minutes to go in th 4th quarter, but then, in what will surely be one of the most improbable moments of NBA ball this year, reeled off 20 straight points in about 4 minutes to cut the lead down to 4.
These old geezers had struggled to score all season — they only had 29 points in the first 27 minutes of the game — and all of a sudden, with their basketball lives on the line: 20 points, four minutes.
The Boston crowd roared. NBA fans and media went buckwild on Twitter.
And that would be it, really. The Knicks, with an elite offensive talent in his absolute prime, quickly extended the lead back up to 9, with about 2 to 3 minutes left. That was that.
Though they lost, the Celtics went out with a bang — they refused to be embarrassed and blown off the floor. They gave the Boston crowd one last moment to stand and cheer and do white folks shit in Boston — and really, given what’s happened in Boston the past few weeks, it was much needed.
With under 30 seconds left in the game, Doc pulled Pierce and Garnett — the two remaining members of the core; the two heart and soul of the franchise — from the game separately, so each could enjoy his own standing ovation from the crowd.
Though New York won the series, their behavior changed from brash and arrogant to one of humility by the series’ end. They had learned, first hand, what it means to play the game with pride. To never give up¹. The New York Knicks were humbled, even in victory.
When Garnett checked out, he hugged Doc Rivers, and the two had this exchange:
“I love you, Kevin.”
“I love you, Doc.”
Doc fought to hold back tears. Me too.
¹This is where my “how a team loses shows character” logic come in. These Celtics never gave up, always fought to the end. This era’s Lakers? Seems like whenever they do get eliminated from the playoffs, they don’t just lose the last game, they get blown out. Outclassed. Completely embarrassed. Just off the top of my head, I can name 2003, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2013 as years in which the Lakers were humiliated in their final game. We’re talking about losing by 25 or 35 points here.