His nerves settled, Rondo made his All-Star debut and turned to helping his elder teammates recover. Garnett, who had off-season surgery to remove a large cyst from his right knee, and Pierce, who underwent an arthroscopic irrigation in December to remove a right-knee infection, were both in the midst of their worst scoring seasons since they were rookies. In February and March, Rivers asked Rondo to cut back on his shooting so his stars could get back into the offense as they healed. "Rondo did it with no problem, he was great," said Rivers. "The problem was the other two weren't ready. And Rondo was still [feeding them]. On the one hand he understood, but he was like, Man, we're going to them even though they can't even move.
"We just felt if we were going to win, if we had any chance, we had to get them back to where they're at now. I didn't want to lose any games. [Boston went just 21--16 from the beginning of February through mid-April.] But it was worth it to get them back."
By the end of the season Pierce was driving to the basket on strengthened legs, and Garnett looked more spry last Saturday than he has in months as he blocked a shot from the other side of the basket, dunked emphatically while crossing the lane and completed a variety of spin moves on the block. Garnett's recovery had come with the special assistance of Rondo, who during the championship run had been viewed by the Big Three as a pesky little brother but who has since grown up to become the family savior—a Michael Corleone taking command in time of crisis. Over the second half of the year Rondo tried to coax Garnett back into shape by lobbing him occasional alley-oops, knowing full well that a similar play had set off KG's original knee injury. "I'm just trying to get him confident, so I don't even want to throw him a pass where he's in traffic and he's worried about coming down," says Rondo. "If I do throw a pass, it's usually when it's just him and his man so he can hang on the rim and it won't be contested."
But confidence and health aren't everything. The Celtics' improvised approach to the 82-game season left scant time to recover the selfless and highly synchronized teamwork that defined their '08 championship team at both ends of the floor—the same woven rotations that now define LeBron's Cavaliers. The free-agent signings of forward Rasheed Wallace and swingman Marquis Daniels (who has fallen out of the rotation since undergoing thumb surgery in December) haven't paid off, and so the Celtics are now hoping to suddenly pull themselves together against a title favorite that is younger, deeper and better prepared to focus for 48 minutes.
And yet there remains hope for one more parade, that this proud team can reconstitute the breathtaking 1969 farewell of Bill Russell when he led his elderly Celtics to a Game 7 Finals upset of the Lakers. Can today's Celtics summon that resolve? "They've had it through most of their careers," Ainge said last Thursday as he sat in his office overlooking the practice gym, players' shouts audible through an open window. "I know what's inside our guys, and that gives me comfort."
Which is not to be confused with feeling comfortable. Ainge is facing difficult choices this summer. Does he re-sign Allen, move him in a sign-and-trade or simply replace him with a mid-level free agent? Does he investigate dealing Garnett for a younger replacement in hope of jump-starting Boston's transition to the next era? Much will depend on whether the three old stars can renew their dominance by peaking in the playoffs, which has been the Celtics' plan all along.
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