With 28 seconds left in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Miami Heat had a double-digit lead and the Boston Celtics were running on fumes. Celtics coach Doc Rivers knew it was time to wave the white flag and pull his starters off the court.
‘We had nothing left,” Rivers said. ”That’s how it felt, as a coach . . . But overall, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a group like this.”
There was a lot of emotion on the Celtics’ sideline as Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo headed for the bench. Garnett and Rivers shared a poignant moment as the two men hugged it out while time ticked away on what could be the final time Boston’s Big Three — plus Rondo — will ever wear Celtic green.
In the five-year era of the “Big Four” — or the Fantastic Four, whichever you prefer — the Celtics posted a 69% winning percentage during the regular season, won five Atlantic Division titles, made three trips to the Eastern Conference finals, reached the the NBA Finals twice, and raised one championship banner.
That one NBA title will be the signature moment for the Fantastic Four, but the group also left a lot of titles on the table because of injuries, trades, and one freak elbow injury to Rondo in the 2011 playoffs.
“I wish we had a healthy run. This team won a title, got to another one lost in Game 7 [against the Lakers in 2010] where they had a shot to win. Got to the Eastern Conference final one game away on the road banged up,” Rivers said. “Because of really Kevin’s injury I don’t know if we could have gotten any more out of the group. I would have loved to have seen this team in this whole stretch where Kevin was injury free.”
The injury Rivers was referring to was the knee injury Garnett sustained during the 2008-09 season, which knocked him out of the playoffs and it took KG a full season to completely recover from it.
It is not a certainty that general manager Danny Ainge will break up Boston’s Fantastic Four but, because of age and expiring contracts, it will be very difficult to keep the nucleus of the Celtics with Garnett and Allen becoming unrestricted free agents this summer.
The group knew all season long, especially during the playoffs, Who knows what next season could bring.
Boston battled injuries all season, all the way to the end. Allen said he’ll need surgery soon to repair bone chips in his right ankle. Pierce has been playing through a sprained knee ligament.
It all hurt. Nothing hurt more than the final buzzer Saturday night.
”It’s probably the worst feeling that we feel, in our lives, in our careers,” Allen said. ”There’s nothing you can do about it. There’s one team that wins that last game. We want to be that team every year. We’ve been through a lot. We’ve won a lot of games. At the end of every season, it always feels like it’s it.
”This one hit me hard,” Allen continued. ”We wanted it so bad.”
Allen fought through a painful ankle injury for much of the playoffs while Pierce played through a banged up knee. Garnett, 36, had a resurgence in the playoffs and looks like he’s got a couple of good years left. Rondo and Pierce remain under contract so they’ll be back. There is a strong possibly that Garnett will return to Boston, but Allen seems to be headed into free agency.
The loss of Allen won’t hurt as much because the Celtics have Avery Bradley and Mikael Pietrus to plug in his spot. Losing Garnett, however, would be devastating.
“Well, [Kevin’s] been everything for my career,” Pierce told ESPN Boston. “Just his locker room presence, his desire, his determination, his leadership. I’ve said it before, when Kevin first got here, he really changed the culture of everything we did around here — from the practice habits to on the court, just the discipline. He made everybody accountable, from the ball boys to the chefs to the guy who flew the plane. Everybody was accountable.”
Pierce continued: “It was tremendous to just have him around. The culture he brought — it would be great for me to end my career with Kevin. I have a couple years left, and who knows what his future’s going to bring. Hopefully management can do something to bring him back, maybe add some pieces to this team, that we need, to get over the top. If not, it’s been a tremendous run.”