Posted Jun 10 2012 2:26AM
MIAMI -- For 27 quarters plus two overtime sessions, the Boston Celtics had hung with the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. Aging, outmanned, undersized and overmatched, the Celtics had managed, all the same, to get to the brink of an improbable trip to the 2012 NBA Finals.
Three hundred thirty-four minutes to be exact, with just 12 to go, and a 73-73 tie heading into the final quarter of Game 7. That, finally, was when it slipped away from the Celtics for these playoffs. Maybe even for good.
It was not their finest hour, er, quarter. This green team built on defense got burned for 55.6 percent shooting. It missed 11 of the 18 shots it took. Each one of the Heat's nouveau Big 3 -- LeBron James (11), Dwyane Wade (9) and Chris Bosh (8) -- scored more points in the fourth than the Celtics' more venerable Big 3 combined; Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen mustered just seven points in a total of nearly 31 minutes in that period.
By the end, it looked like the season had lasted just a little too long for the Celtics. Had they grabbed Game 2 and ridden Rondo's monster game before it went into overtime ... had they shown up for their real close-out opportunity in Boston in Game 6 ... had they done either of those to end this series before Chris Bosh became a serious factor ... the Celtics might have had enough.
And even then, Boston coach Doc Rivers left AmericanAirlines Arena wishing he and his team could have kept on going.
"If we could have got this group to The Finals, it would have been fantastic for us," Rivers said. "That's all I thought about today: Somehow let's see if we can get this group in The Finals. They deserve it with their will."
There was more than one "this group" in play. The 2011-12 Celtics clearly were worthy of a championship try, a showdown with Oklahoma City, based on their humble beginnings (15-17 at the All-Star break, before a mighty 24-10 close) and those among them -- Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox, Jermaine O'Neal, Avery Bradley -- who had fallen to ailments or injuries. "This group" went to seven in the conference semifinals against Philadelphia, seven again just now against the Heat and, even with needles firmly on "E," would have gamely gone to seven against the Thunder too, if given the chance.
Then there was the other "this group" on Rivers' and so many others' minds Saturday night. That was the core, the ones who came together back in the summer of 2007 and whose tenure can be counted in seasons and years, not in minutes and series.
Pierce, Garnett, Allen and, yes, the irrepressible Rondo logged 480 games from their European start in 2007-08 to their exit from the postseason Saturday. They won precently two for every one they lost: 273-121 across five regular seasons, 47-39 in the playoffs, 320-160 overall. Twice they reached the Finals, in 2008 and again in 2010. Once, in 2008, they won the championship.
There might have been more -- had Garnett been healthy in 2009, had Kendrick Perkins not come up lame in Game 6 against the Lakers in 2010, had Bradley been available to hound Wade or James for the past two weeks. But what there was, was pretty good.
"To have a chance to play with some of the greatest players of all time in Ray and Kevin," Pierce said. "And also up and coming Rondo, who has a bright future ahead of himself. I couldn't ask for anything more. There have been a lot of players who have been in my position who didn't get that opportunity. So I'm very thankful of these last five years."
Pierce will be back, with two years to go on his contract. Garnett is a free agent for the first time in his 17-year career, a coveted defensive presence and culture-changer who might land elsewhere -- fade to black entirely in retirement. Allen has surgery on his balky ankle as his top priority, then free agency of his own, and probably is the Celtic most likely to get away, based on the expected gap in his and the team's views of his value and future.
But that's a story for next month. Much of the postgame period late Saturday was about looking back. Savoring what they had. And appreciating how rare it is in a league that almost always is moving too fast.
Keyon Dooling admitted that he cried after the final horn Saturday -- and he was around for just one season as a backup guard. Garnett slipped out a back door, unwilling or unable to talk with reporters and stand in against the big questions. Pierce did, though, and Allen did too.
"When we first came together, it seemed like it was -- up to this point, five years has gone quickly, but it seems like it has lasted forever," Allen said. "We've played in a lot of big games. We won a championship together. It's just been a special time."
Rondo, as you'd expect, was the least interested in nostalgia, in getting everyone to sign his yearbook like it was the last day of senior year. He plans to be back, he plans to get yapping and swiping at James and Wade and the rest of the Heat for years to come. He mostly wanted to talk about what slipped away in that final fourth quarter. "We could have done a couple of things better defensively," he said. "Our rotations weren't crisp in the pick-and-roll. We made bad decisions. Over-penetration. Gave up a lot of threes, two to Bosh, a couple to Battier... "
All true. But also beside the point as others looked further back and more ahead.
Pierce was asked about the dicey days leading up to the league's trading deadline, when the Celtics players were being challenged by their own front office, GM Danny Ainge pondering moves that could have split them apart. "Um, I don't want to see we went upstairs and begged to meet to stay together," Pierce said. "Obviously we wanted to play together. ... I'm just happy they was able to let us continue to play."
Allen talked of the history in Boston and how that translates into pressure and urgency and pride. "It's always been somewhat intimidating," he said. "You walk into a building every day and you see banners and the retired jerseys. it just always makes you work a little bit harder.
"When Havlicek is in the building, when Cousy is around. Tommy [Heinsohn] is watching us every day. Bill Russell is at games. Those are like our big brothers. So we know that we have ... some big shoes to fill. We have definitely fallen short, but we've gone out tyring to play as hard as we can every night."
Rivers spoke volumes, too, about their time together. Especially when he kept it short. "I love them," the coach said of his players. "They were phenomenal."
The past tense in that comment is where the ache is now, the realization that something, some things, truly are over. It's only basketball but it's poignant too, and there was a message on the white board in the visitors' dressing room that was a sports version of Hemingway's famously brief short story ("For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.").
This was a scrawl, so late Saturday night, about tomorrow:
These Celtics had packed for a week. They're taking clean clothes home.
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