What might Rondo have become when he was viewed as the least reliable starter on their title team if he hadn't been forced to elevate to the standards of the Big Three? Six years after he left Kentucky as a poor shooter to join the Celtics as the No. 21 pick, Rondo demonstrated how much of his elders' audacity has rubbed off on him. When Pierce fouled out in Game 7 last Saturday, Rondo instantly transformed himself into a younger Pierce by sinking one long jumper with his foot on the line and another longer shot at least three feet behind the three-point arc. He is a 24.1% three-point shooter for his career and an equally unimpressive 58.5% foul shooter over the last two regular seasons, and yet Rondo swished four straight free throws under pressure.
Rondo's exposure to his veteran teammates has enabled him to make any number of plays when they're needed most. Before they were flung together near the end of their careers, Garnett, Allen and Pierce—who had a combined zero Finals appearances—had each been a losing team's go-to star. Then they realized how much they needed one another if they were ever going to win a championship. "All of a sudden they were reinvented, and you saw what they had always been," says Ainge.
When Ainge traded for Allen and Garnett, he was hesitant to refer to his stars as the Big Three out of deference to Bird, McHale and Parish, who won three titles in their 12 seasons together. Now Ainge feels that the current trio has earned the right to be called Big. "The biggest difference has been health and longevity," said Ainge. "When Kevin and Larry and Robert were healthy, they were extremely special. They just didn't maintain it this long; Kevin and Larry weren't the same players after their surgeries. When they were in their 20s, I'd give the nod to the Big Three of the '80s. But in their 30s, I'd give the nod to the Big Three of today."
Mike Rotondi couldn't get used to the idea of saying goodbye to this team. He has been a Celtics season-ticket holder for 32 years, sitting courtside throughout the titles of the Bird era and the ensuing 21 seasons without a championship before the latest Big Three came together. "All I've heard on the radio five times today already is how it could be Ray's last game, Kevin's last game," said Rotondi before Game 7 on Saturday. "I'm very sad thinking about the inevitability of it. I don't know what we are going to do when we break them up."
The Celtics' influence reached out to Los Angeles, where the Lakers' 39-point loss in the decisive Game 6 of the 2008 Finals (as prophesied by Belichick) inspired L.A. to mimic Boston by growing tougher at both ends of the floor. Would Kobe Bryant be viewed with such esteem if Boston hadn't pushed him and his teammates to win the next two championships while renewing the Celtics-Lakers rivalry? Would LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have formed their own trio in Miami?
Despite losing three of four regular-season meetings, the Heat has all kinds of reasons to be confident of delivering a second straight knockout to the Celts. Boston's backup center Chris Wilcox joined Green on the sideline while dealing with a heart issue. Starting center Jermaine O'Neal underwent season-ending wrist surgery, and backup Greg Stiemsma's minutes have been limited in the playoffs by plantar fasciitis. Pierce is dealing with a sprained left MCL, and Allen, in spite of his own painful injury, was forced to return to the starting lineup when Avery Bradley—a crucial perimeter defender—underwent surgery last Friday to repair his dislocated left shoulder. Who will be able to stay in front of Wade, and who will help Pierce guard James?
The Celtics are resolute that they can cause problems of their own; the Heat has no ready answers for Rondo at the point or Garnett in the post. Perhaps more important, though, is the Big Three's sense of urgency. They were able to wed their talents instantly in 2007--08 because they sensed they were running out of time. Now, their final loss this season may well turn out to be their final game together.
"You look at the talent of our team from last year to this year, it's not even the same ballpark," says coach Doc Rivers. "But this is a team. I love this team. They just like each other, they fight for each other, they pull for each other. They know we're undermanned. They know it every night."
But they continue to survive, and that shared understanding of how to win may yet keep them together. Having seen the growth in Rondo, Bradley and other Boston prospects raised in the presence of Garnett and Allen, the Celtics haven't given up on the idea of trying to bring back their leaders this summer. "I really value those guys with young players around," said Ainge.
A full reunion, however, is unlikely. The end is near. "I literally won't allow myself to go down that road," says Rivers. "Whenever that day comes, that will be an emotional day." And yet the certainty of that sad day is to be treasured, because it brings out the best in those who play every game as if it may be their last.