That wasn’t just any other elimination game, featuring an inferior team fighting to survive and a dominant team looking to maintain momentum. Sure, the Celtics are inferior at this point. They can’t score consistently, they can’t protect the rim like they used to, and they can’t put together four decent quarters in a row anymore. Doc Rivers’ experienced squad still rolls out a stingy brand of defense predicated upon timely defensive rotations and overloading the strong side, but too much of a burden is placed on the shoulders of an aging, beaten-down Kevin Garnett. Likewise, his proud teammate, Paul Pierce, shoulders too great a load on the offensive end in the twilight of an impressive career. There’s no depth in a frontcourt lacking the injured Jared Sullinger and featuring the clueless Chris Wilcox. And, of course, Rajon Rondo won’t be in uniform until next season. His magnificent displays of versatility on national television will have to be put on hold for another few months.
By all means, this Celtics team is inferior. It isn’t in the same league as the championship winning unit from half a decade back, or even as mentally tough as the ragtag bunch that pushed the vaunted Miami Heat to the brink less than a year ago. The New York Knicks are more explosive, more physical, and just about more everything—they will close out the series very soon, as they very well should.
But this wasn’t like any other elimination game in late April. It could have spelled the end of an era—and a glorious one at that, worth placing alongside the 1960s and 1980s in Boston Celtics lore. Garnett will celebrate his 37th birthday next month, while Pierce will celebrate his 36th right around the start of next season. (The same goes for the entertaining Jason Terry, who provided an unexpected outlier performance on Sunday.) Both Garnett and Pierce contemplated retirement last summer. They almost called it quits then, and that was almost twelve months ago.
This is the end of the road. Over the past two or three regular seasons, Bostonians have wondered aloud about the future of their historic franchise once the Garnett-Pierce imprint faded from relevance and the city was left with a bare cupboard of dispensable pieces. In recent years, only one question has mattered: what will Danny Ainge do when the time is finally right?
Well, the time is now. The Celtics face an all-too-likely, thoroughly unceremonious elimination at the hands of a traditional rival, and a crippling combination of age and injuries and more age has caught up to the franchise after a successful string of seasons from 2007 to 2012. Kevin Garnett’s pride and competitiveness run as deep as ever, but his joints and muscles are beginning to fail him. Paul Pierce—still arguably the craftiest scorer in the league, given his physical limitations—can’t possibly survive the rigors of extended minutes, advanced age, and a high usage rate for much longer. And Jason Terry definitely didn’t make people forget about Ray Allen this year, instead continuing his sharp regression since the 2011 NBA Finals.
Even with the much-needed emergence of Jeff Green—a frustratingly inconsistent (and overpaid) forward with considerable vertical bounce—there isn’t much left there. Outside of the Garnett-Pierce core, these Celtics resemble a hodgepodge of movable parts and lowly castoffs. Jordan Crawford and Terrence Williams both played significant minutes on Sunday.
Even the crowd in attendance wasn’t up to par. A myriad number of empty seats combined with a timid, disinterested audience at the start of the game, resulting in a less-than-impressive show of support. The building just didn’t have that usual zest, and a feeling of passivity spread through the ranks of spectators wearing green and white. It just didn’t feel like April 2008 anymore, when the Celtics steamrolled opponents in front of their home crowd.
As I checked out the action on Sunday afternoon, my heart was feeling considerably weighed down by the urgency of the moment. This could be Garnett’s very last game as a Boston Celtic. This might be the very last time that Pierce plays basketball professionally in downtown Boston. These two icons of the sports world have both provided me with boatloads of terrific memories, and they both might be gone by the end of the summer. No more of the patented tendencies that made them both so great for so long. Those midrange jumpers, trailing three-pointers, fading buzzer-beaters, vicious slam dunks, and reliable clutch performances. Those immaculate displays of mental fortitude and physical toughness that instilled tremendous pride in the green and white once again.
Sunday afternoon had a surreal feel to it. After about a half-decade’s worth of seasons watching the same old guys doing the same old things, I finally felt that their time was up. Something just didn’t feel right anymore. This was officially a crossroads following five years of dominance, a time span that impacted me tremendously as a teenager growing up in the tidy suburbs of Boston.
I’ve finally come to grips with reality, following the Celtics victory. That warm and sunny Sunday afternoon at the end of April meant that the turning of the tide was near, postponed only by a relatively irrelevant win in the long run. Very soon, it will be time to turn the page, venturing into a new era from the ashes of the old.