Posted Jun 18 2010 1:08PM
LOS ANGELES -- So this is the way the window closes. Not with a banner but a whimper.
T.S. Eliot had loftier things in mind when he wrote the words from which those above were stolen and massaged. Like, oh, the end of the world rather than the closing of the Celtics' window of opportunity to win another championship.
But for the players and coaches in the visitors' dressing room at Staples Center on Thursday night, in the deflating moments after the Celtics' 83-79 loss to the Lakers, this felt almost as dire. The pain was real. And anyone who had a problem with the idea of grown men whimpering ... well, you were missing what made these Celtics special in the first place.
"There's a lot of crying in our locker room, a lot of people who care," coach Doc Rivers said. "I don't think there was a dry eye. A lot of hugs, a lot of people feeling awful. That's a good thing. That means everybody cares.
"I just can't stress enough how crazy-close this team was ... They're the type of group that they could scream at each other but no one [from outside had better] pick on any of them."
Said veteran guard Ray Allen, gulping hard: "There was a lot of tears. A lot of tears ... This is probably one of the hardest feelings that I've felt in my lifetime. You're scratchin' and clawin', trying to do everything we could to try to pull this out. That probably hurt the most, to have the opportunity to win and down the stretch, things just didn't go our way."
Forward Kevin Garnett called it, simply, his most emotionally draining loss.
Big as the defeat was -- in fact, huge as it was -- the Celtics lost more than a game and a championship Thursday. They lost much of who they've been over the past three seasons, along with any certainty about who they'll be.
They lost nothing less than a whole bunch of their "they."
"It's difficult," Garnett said, seated and looking toward the floor, before exhaling deeply. "It's just a difficult time right now."
Garnett was the catalyst three summers ago to Boston's overnight resurgence. At the time, the Celtics were a wayward franchise reeling from some bad lottery luck -- no Greg Oden, no Kevin Durant for them in the 2007 Draft. So basketball boss Danny Ainge got sweet-shooting Ray Allen in a trade, joining holdover All-Star Paul Pierce. Then Ainge pulled off his blockbuster to acquire Garnett from Minnesota, instantly raising expectations that Rivers and his players surpassed with an NBA title less than 11 months later.
The thinking then was, that group would have a window to win that would stay open for about three seasons. Well, three seasons came and went on Thursday. Now it's the Boston players and coaches who might go.
One of them, lead assistant and defensive guru Tom Thibodeau, already is gone, committed to the Chicago Bulls as their next coach. Bigger than that, though, is the prospect that Rivers will leave, taking a long-sought sabbatical from coaching to enjoy his college- and high school-aged kids before they move on entirely.
Allen is a free agent, his $19.76 million salary off the books. Pierce can opt out of a deal that would pay him $21.5 million in 2010-11. Veteran Rasheed Wallace, who filled the void of center Kendrick Perkins' absence from Game 7, might retire (despite $13 million and two seasons left on his contract). Other players -- like unrestricted free agents Tony Allen, Marquis Daniels, Nate Robinson, Brian Scalabrine, Michael Finley and Shelden Williams -- are unlikely to all be wooed back. And even for those who will be back -- Garnett, for instance, has two years left at $18.8 million and $21.2 million -- the chemistry and camaraderie won't be the same.
One by one after their elimination, Celtics players got asked the essentials: Do you hope Doc comes back? Should Ainge re-sign Allen? Pierce doesn't want to leave, does he? Can you guys get back here again? One by one, they answered with their hearts, letting management handle the logic (and, of course, the dollars).
All the Celtics need to do now is play 110 or so games again, slalom through the injuries, travel through potholes and foes in the East and earn themselves another Finals-clinching game ... while getting a year older.
"It's hard. It's hard," Garnett said. "I think everybody's not only physically fatigued but mentally fatigued. Um, you're around ... a group of guys for nine months and you prepare together so much that you grow to enjoy each other. At the same time, get tired of each other. You end up calling that guy your brother for life."
When the window of opportunity opened in 2007-08, the Celtics won 29 of their first 32 games, went 66-16 and beat the Lakers in The Finals, including a 131-92 smackdown in the Game 6 clincher. In 2008-09, Boston started 27-2 and ended with 62 wins, but lost its way in the postseason without Garnett, sidelined and headed for June knee surgery.
This season was the most rugged of all, with Garnett rehabbing on the job and Pierce battling injuries, too. Rivers had to manage minutes, egos and the schedule, sacrificing some games in a 27-27 finish that had Boston finish 50-32 and fourth in the East. Yet Rivers challenged them in the playoffs and the Celtics responded, beating Miami, No. 1-seed Cleveland and No. 2-seed Orlando in five, six and six games, respectively.
In The Finals, Boston snatched L.A.'s homecourt advantage in Game 2, then gave it right back. They had two chances to win one back in L.A., but lost Perkins early in Game 6, their starting center no longer available in a series defined by rebounding and defense. It was, perhaps, an omen.
"Everything looks like it's going down," Perkins said glumly on Wednesday.
Thirty-six hours later, it had. The window, maybe, sliding shut.
Point guard Rajon Rondo, who might have had the driest eyes in the room, was asked if he wanted another title run with this group. "Yeah," Rondo said, "But it's probably not going to happen."
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