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Ray Allen is the most prolific three-point shooter in NBA history, but bone spurs in his right ankle were flattening his impact like a nail in a tire. Kevin Garnett, at 36, was working so hard defensively that he lacked the lift to dunk on the break, and he was bouncing his signature turnaround jumpers off the side of the backboard. Paul Pierce, who has scored more points than any Celtic except John Havlicek, was fouling out with four minutes left and a three-point lead separating him and his accomplished teammates from an abrupt end to their run of title contention.
Last Saturday night it was clear that Boston had a Big Three in need of a boost—and not for the first time. In 1986 the Celtics used the second pick in the draft on Len Bias, a power forward who was supposed to rescue and extend the careers of stars Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Bias died of a cocaine overdose three days after the draft, and that threesome never won another title. But the Big Three of today has Rajon Rondo, the 26-year-old point guard who enables his old teammates to maintain a level of success they never knew in their youth.
Just when the basket appeared to be shrinking and Boston's window closing, Rondo pried it back open. He outscored the young 76ers—his peers in age but not in responsibility or achievement—by 9--2 down the stretch to give Boston an 85--75 win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Fans at the TD Garden were so excited by his performance that they couldn't get their cheers straight. Some began by chanting M-V-P! M-V-P!, which is surely Rondo's role on this team, even as competing words came from the other side of the arena. Not until Rondo swished the last of his four straight free throws with 53 seconds left did they speak with one voice: Beat the Heat! Beat the Heat! Beat the Heat!
This Big Three era in Boston is supposed to be ending five seasons after it was conceived and executed with the trades that surrounded Pierce with Allen and then Garnett. With the expiring contracts of Garnett and Allen creating gobs of cap space with which the Celtics may rebuild around Rondo, Boston fans have been both anticipating the future and dreading saying goodbye. But these injured, enervated and elderly Celtics refuse to take their exit cue. The day after their Game 7 triumph, while players and coaches were boarding a plane to Miami to begin the Eastern finals, their employers and fans were reminiscing dreamily without end. It was the best of both worlds.
FROM A COURTSIDE SEAT at Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia on May 23, 90 minutes before the 76ers won Game 6, Wyc Grousbeck, the Celtics' majority owner, grew sentimental. He recalled the afternoon in July 2007 when he was running on the beach alone on Martha's Vineyard with his phone in hand, a half hour before the team's self-imposed deadline to complete the trade for Garnett. After caving on his demand that Boston include Rondo, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor finally called Grousbeck to agree to the deal. "I believe you will win the NBA championship," Taylor told him.
But their success was neither simple nor assured. The Celtics were building with used parts: Pierce, their 30-year-old mainstay; Garnett, who had been dealing with chronic knee issues; and Allen, 32, who recently had surgery on both ankles. One month earlier Boston, which had finished with the league's second-worst record, had been hoping to rebuild in the draft. (Celtics officials insist that if the team had won the lottery, G.M. Danny Ainge would have taken Kevin Durant over Greg Oden.) But after plummeting to No. 5 in the lottery, they traded that pick to the Seattle SuperSonics as part of a deal for Allen. The move—cashing out their young assets in return for an expensive roster with a relatively brief future—flew in the face of convention.
Before committing to the Garnett trade, Grousbeck called a meeting of his top seven co-owners and Ainge, who laid out the pluses and minuses of paying the three stars $56 million in 2007--08, more than the Bobcats and the Grizzlies would spend on their entire rosters that season. "I said, 'If they can coexist and thrive, this could really work; we could win the whole thing,'" recalled Grousbeck. "But if it goes badly, we might each need to chip in some more money, and I want to make sure everybody is comfortable with the risk and reward." Not only was every owner committed, but each also offered to buy out any partner who didn't want to invest in the new (or old, depending on your point of view) Big Three. There were no takers.
Ainge, who played three seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays before spending 7½ years in the original Boston Garden alongside Bird, would tell Grousbeck he had never seen a team in any sport play as intensely throughout a season as the 2007--08 Celtics. After they won Game 7s against the Hawks and the Cavaliers, then weathered a knee injury to Pierce in Game 1 of the Finals, Grousbeck didn't know what to make of their 23-point halftime lead over the Lakers in Game 6. He was fretting in Boston's high-end Courtside Club lounge when he sought perspective from Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "I go, 'Bill, I'm a little worried,'" says Grousbeck. "I'm thinking if anybody's going to give me the canned speech—it's not over till it's over—it's Bill Belichick. He says, 'Hell, you got this; you're world champs! Have a shot.' And he hands me a shot of tequila."
Subsequent title runs came up short. A knee injury kept Garnett out of the 2009 playoffs, when Boston lost the conference semifinals to the Magic after taking a 3--2 lead. The next year the Celtics returned to the Finals but squandered a 13-point third-quarter lead to Los Angeles in Game 7. Last season they believed, stubbornly, that they were superior to Miami and could have advanced past the second round if not for a hyperextended left elbow suffered by Rondo in Game 3. Now their steadfast refusal to give in to a variety of injuries has propelled them into the conference finals as underdogs against the younger and more explosive Heat.
Originally Grousbeck and Ainge assumed that the Celtics would enjoy a three-year window of contention. They hoped to extend the run by trading the expiring contract of center Kendrick Perkins last season to the Thunder, though the Celtics as yet have nothing to show for it: Center Nenad Krstic moved to the Russian Super League during the lockout, and forward Jeff Green was sidelined for the year by a heart procedure. Those setbacks contributed to Boston's 15--17 start this season. But the Celtics improved at both ends of the court when Garnett moved to center and received inspired play from Rondo, who was finishing his second year when the Celtics won the 2008 Finals. "I'm not surprised," says retired forward P.J. Brown of Rondo's ascension. When Brown signed with the Celtics in February 2008, three months before he would famously make a jump shot that would help them beat the Cavaliers in Game 7 of their conference semifinal, he would return to the gym at night to improve his conditioning and usually find Rondo there. "That proved to me this kid's special, and he's going to be a star one day," said Brown. "Young guys come into the league with the mentality that everything's going to be given to you. But you couldn't be that way with the Celtics at that time. With Kevin and Paul and Ray, you had to give it your all."