End of an Era? C's Run Halts in Miami

MIAMI – If this was the end of the Big 3 era, it’s been an amazing, dramatic, agonizing, refreshing, inspiring and heartbreaking run, from Ubuntu to #packforaweek.

For a Celtics team that nearly made its third NBA Finals appearance in a five-year span, the dream is over, at least for now. They ran out of gas in the final period of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Miami, falling to the Heat 101-88 at AmericanAirlines Arena.

Kevin Garnett

A frustrated KG knows that a golden opportunity slipped away in Game 7 Saturday night.

They were called too old, too tired and too banged up all year long, and while the Celtics defied the odds long beyond popular expectations, it seemed that conventional wisdom finally proved true.

The one thing no one ever questioned was the team’s heart, which it wore on its sleeve and laid on the line throughout the postseason.

“Honestly I just thought we had nothing left,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said in an emotional postgame press conference after the season-ending loss. “I was trying to push every button we possibly had, but everything was the front rim.”

In other words, their shots fell just short. Just like the 2012 Celtics’ run. Rivers was visibly pained by the idea that the dream was over as he sat at the podium, his voice quaking periodically as he reflected on what almost was and what could have been.

"If we could have got this group to the Finals, it would have been fantastic for us. That's all I thought about today. Somehow, let’s just see if we can get this group to the Finals. They deserve it with their will,” Rivers said. “I hear people talk about the NBA and that it’s an individual league. That theory is gone. This is a team. We had a terrific team effort by everybody."

Speaking of efforts, Rajon Rondo posted his fourth triple-double (22 points, 10 rebounds, 14 assists) of the playoffs to cap a remarkable season, but his individual performance was a mere footnote on a night that carriers much larger meaning in team history. Rivers commended Rondo for becoming the leader of the team and following the example set by Garnett, Pierce and Allen of subjugating their games for the betterment of the team.

“One of the things I love about being a Celtic, we have 17 banners. That’s it on the wall. We don’t have the 30 division championships or the 21 conference championships,” Rivers said. “Everybody buys into the team around here.”

There was certainly reason to believe in Game 7 heading into the fourth quarter. Despite some tough calls, Boston held a 53-46 halftime lead, and Game 7 was tied at 73-73 at the end of the third quarter. The Celtics led 82-81 with 8:20 to go, but a 10-2 burst from the Heat, started by a Chris Bosh corner 3-pointer and capped by a crazy-long LeBron James 3-pointer broke their backs, putting Miami up 91-84. The Heat never looked back.

The Celtics looked stunned and defeated.

“My father passed away three years ago, and I haven’t cried since my father passed away, until tonight,” said reserve shooting guard Keyon Dooling. “It was memorable, life-long friendships. This team is very unique. Though we aren’t champions this year, we have hearts of champions, and that will always keep us connected.”

Considering the Celtics led the Eastern Conference Finals 3-2 with a Game 6 in Boston, just a few days ago another NBA Finals run appeared imminent. Now, only questions remain. Will Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett return to Boston? Is the Big 3 era over? Will Danny Ainge get the band back together with Rondo for one more reunion tour?

That remains to be seen. From losing Chris Wilcox and Jeff Green to freak heart ailments, to season-ending surgeries for Jermaine O’Neal and Avery Bradley, the Celtics took a lot of bullets. And despite plenty of speculation and pressure to break up the Big 3 at the trading deadline, the Celtics stayed the course, opting to give the team one last shot at the title. They came up short, but they came a lot closer than most anyone else expected.

“I was fighting for that. I work with a great GM. I trust him. I kept telling him, ‘Do what you think is best for the team. But if you don’t think it’s best for the long run, short run I want to stay with this group. Make no short-run moves involving them,’” Rivers said.

“I’m glad we did.”

With that short run falling just short, the team fielded multiple questions about the potential end of the Big 3 era, what its legacy will be in the annals of Celtics’ lore.

“It was a great opportunity,” Paul Pierce said in the visitors’ locker room for the last time this season. “Whenever you have a chance to play with some of the greatest players of all time in Ray (Allen), Kevin (Garnett), and an up and coming great in (Rajon) Rondo, you can’t ask for anything more. There are a lot of people who have been in my position who do not get that opportunity.”

That opportunity may have been even bigger had the team not sustained major injuries over the past few seasons.

“I wish we could have had healthy runs,” said Rivers, who was unwilling to declare the end of the Big 3 era when pressed for answers about the future. “I think we’re going to wait to see what happens with free agency and all that stuff.”

So where do we go from here? For now, the Celtics will go away for the summer, take part in the NBA Draft, and dream it all up again before the fall.

Next season, training camp returns to Italy, where the this version of the Big 3 launched in October of 2007. The 2012-13 team is slated to play exhibition games in Milan and Instanbul before returning home to Waltham, Mass. That 2007 training camp, which started in Rome, where Ubuntu was born to bond a unique and memorable team, sparked a 66-16 regular season and a magical run to the 2008 NBA Championship.

Italy, after all, is the home of every great renaissance.