Many Storylines Combine for Emotional Day

BOSTON - January 27 had been circled on a lot of calendars since the NBA released the 2012-13 schedule, as the Miami Heat-Boston Celtics matchup promised to be a main event-type NBA game. In retrospect, it was a day of greater importance than anyone could have predicted.

Sometimes, marquee matchups overpromise and under-deliver, but Sunday’s tilt at TD Garden proved to be a dramatic, double-overtime instant classic. The Celtics notched a thrilling 100-98 victory over the Heat, but January 27, 2013 may very well prove to be a much more significant turning point in the history of franchise.

The original storyline of Ray Allen's return to Boston as a turncoat after having signed with the Miami Heat over the summer was drawn up well in advance. When news broke just minutes before tip-off that Rajon Rondo left the arena to get an MRI on a hyperextended right knee, however, the storyline shifted considerably. Already underdogs in their own house given a difficult six-game losing streak, the Celtics suddenly faced a tall order in hosting the Heat without their floor general for the afternoon.

What they didn’t know at the time was that their future would be altered dramatically on a day that was already filled with nostalgia and mixed emotions.

Paul Pierce, Ray Allen

Ray Allen returned to TD Garden for the first time since trading his green and white jersey for the red and black of the Miami Heat.
NBAE/Getty Images

Allen, who comes off the bench for the Heat, was initially greeted with a chorus of boos when his likeness popped up on the TD Garden jumbotron wearing Celtics green in a “Thanks for the Memories” video reel of his highlights with the club. The video, played at the first timeout of the game, initially generated a visceral jeering from the balcony, but that reaction gradually transformed into a standing ovation as 18,624 spectators started to realize, “Hey, we had some great times with this guy.”

“All the emotions came back from all the great things that we did here,” Allen said after the game, seated on a podium in front of many reporters who covered him on a daily basis for five seasons in Boston. “I always know that I’ll always be a Celtic in my mind, regardless of what anyone else says.”

Of course, the first time he touched the ball Sunday, the boos were back, and Allen is now a full-blown heel when he walks into TD Garden wearing #34 for Miami. Allen looked odd in the black and red jersey, but his trademark shooting form hasn’t changed; he was still knocking down big shots – including a corner 3-pointer that helped the Heat force the first overtime.

With Allen’s return, The New Big Three era was given some much-needed closure, but behind the scenes, a new team-altering story was developing. Rondo’s MRI revealed a tear in his right ACL that will require surgery and end his season, giving the Celtics a lot to think about with regard to the short-term and long-term future of the franchise.

Doc Rivers, who up until about 24 minutes before tip off was under the impression that Rondo would start the game, coached Sunday’s victory without telling his team about Rondo's diagnosis. While he was clearly distraught about Rondo’s injury when he first sat down to meet the press after the game, Rivers refused to write off the season.

“We’ll find someone that’s already in that locker room that’s going to play terrific,” Rivers said of filling the void that Rondo’s absence will leave. When a reporter reminded him that the team had been struggling before today’s news broke, and wondered how the team would fare without him, Rivers was defiant.

“Well you can write the obituary. I’m not. You can go ahead. But I’m not,” Rivers said. “We won tonight. So the way I look at it, we’re going to stay in there. We’re going nowhere.”

Asked for their reactions to Rondo’s injury, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade both told reporters, “It sucks.” Allen called it “unfortunate.”

On any other day, Allen’s return would have been the story of Sunday’s game. While reporters did ask several Celtics about Allen, the team's attention was elsewhere. Pierce, who posted a hard-nosed triple-double with Rondo shelved, downplayed the Allen angle.

“You know, at the end of the day, what happened to Ray is never good for this franchise but it wasn’t about Ray. It was about us playing the defending champs. Miami versus Boston,” Pierce said. “We were on a six-game losing streak, playing against the best team in the Eastern Conference, so it was a big confidence booster for us moving forward.”

The victory was certainly emotional for the Celtics, even though the players had no idea about Rondo’s status until after the game concluded. Miami has proven to be the Celtics’ chief Eastern Conference rival over the past few seasons, so scoring a win against them without Rondo (and Allen, for that matter) was monumental.

A day that should have brought closure suddenly opened up a new question. They learned to live without Allen, but how do the Celtics go on without Rondo?