MIAMI -- A three-year experiment that was extended out to a fifth postseason potentially ended when Boston coach Doc Rivers pulled his four stars off the floor in the last minute of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday. LeBron James and the Heat were looking ahead to launching a new rivalry with Kevin Durant and the Thunder after their Game 7 victory, while Rajon Rondo and the Celtics' Big Three were left to think back on what they had shared, and to wonder what comes next.
Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen will be unrestricted free agents in July, while Paul Pierce and Rondo will remain on the books. Allen and Garnett, both 36, are expected to receive bids from Boston rivals this summer.
While Allen has insisted he will continue to play next year and beyond, Garnett's future has been much harder to predict. Early in the season word was leaking from people who knew him that Garnett was considering this to be his farewell year. Garnett (as well as Pierce) was surprised that the season started as early as Christmas Day after the lockout. He was not ready and the Celtics were only 15-17 going into the All-Star break.
Over the second half, however, Garnett improved his conditioning and was rejuvenated by a move to center, which inspired the Celtics to feature their offense through him in the post. For more than two months Garnett played at an All-Star level while joining with Rondo to lead Boston to the conference finals.
Rivers has been spreading the word for months that he expects Garnett to return to the NBA next season, and the coach hopes that he can be persuaded to re-sign with Boston. Team president Danny Ainge has told colleagues that he is not automatically committed to letting Garnett and Allen walk as free agents in order to spend Boston's cap space on younger players. The Celtics already have two picks in the first round (Nos. 21 and 22) of a deep draft, this season's rookies in JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, and a second-year defensive leader in 6-foot-3 guard Avery Bradley to start alongside Rondo next season.
Ainge is aware of the positive impact that Garnett and Allen -- alongside Pierce -- could have on younger players, showing them by example how to prepare and how to win while bridging them to a new era. Ainge appears to be on the same page as Rivers when it comes to re-signing Garnett and/or Allen. A league source quoted Ainge as saying, "I really value having those guys around young players.''
If Garnett wants to continue his career, will the Celtics be willing and able to negotiate a new deal with him? It has been 15 years since he was paid less than $14 million annually, and would he be able to live with a smaller contract while playing with the devotion that has defined his career? Complicating this issue is the outcome of the lockout, during which Garnett served as a hawkish leader of the players' union, which accused owners of exaggerating their losses and hiding their profits. It could be difficult for Garnett to swallow a lesser contract if he really does believe that the owners as a whole are demanding lesser salaries of players in order to pocket the savings.
On the other hand, Garnett is known to value his relationship with Rivers, who has spent the last several years fighting back tears when asked to consider his coaching future without the former MVP. Remember that Garnett didn't want to leave Minnesota in 2007. Even though the roster had deteriorated hopelessly around him, he agreed to a trade to Boston only after the Timberwolves had made it clear that he needed to go. He is not the type to believe in the greener grass elsewhere.
Allen's future is also interesting. "I don't know what Kevin's situation is,'' Allen said after Boston's 101-88 loss in Game 6. "There's still a lot of basketball left in my legs, I know that for sure. So it's hard to say what can happen, what may happen.''
Allen will turn 37 next month, and contenders like the Bulls, Lakers, Knicks and Grizzlies are thought to be interested in pursuing him this summer. The Celtics agree with Allen's assessment of his future and will be interested in bringing him back, after he undergoes surgery to repair the bone spurs in his ankle that limited him throughout the playoffs.
"People will think it's age,'' Ainge said of Allen's recent struggles. "It's not age. He's injured. And he'll probably return and recover and still have another couple of good years left in him.''
Ainge did not forget that Allen and the 26-year-old-Rondo carried the Celtics during the early weeks of the season, when Pierce and Garnett were regaining their conditioning.
"Ray, the first half of this year, played at an unbelievable level,'' Ainge said. "He's not just an old guy hitting spot-up shots.''
But Allen has heard his name involved in trade rumors for several years, and in March he would have been dealt to Memphis for a package of O.J. Mayo and a first-round pick if the Grizzlies hadn't backed out. If he receives an offer from a potential champion like Chicago, it may be hard for the Celtics to compete.
The future of the Big Three is impossible to forecast because there are so many moving parts. A draft-day trade (always a possibility when Ainge is involved) could change the formula immensely. The Celtics may come up with an alternative plan to spend their cap space. Preemptive decisions by Allen and Garnett may take either or both of them out of play for Boston.
That's why the Celtics themselves were more interested in looking back on their five years together than in forecasting their breakup. (Ainge and majority owner Wyc Grousbeck figured that Boston would have a three-year window to contend for titles after forming the Big Three in 2007.) Pierce thanked Garnett for renewing the Celtics' tradition: "He's done everything for my career.'' Allen was emotional as he considered the larger impact of being a Celtic.
"It's always been somewhat intimidating,'' Allen said. "You walk into a building every day and you see the banners and the retired jerseys. It always makes you work a little bit harder when [John] Havlicek is in the building, when [Bob] Cousy is around. Tommy [Heinsohn] is watching us every day. Bill Russell is at the games. Those are like our big brothers. So we know that we have some big shoes to fill, and a lot that we need to do to try to compare to what they've done. We have definitely fallen short, but we've gone out trying to play as hard as we can every night.''
The mood of losing a Game 7 in which his team was even at 73-73 entering the fourth quarter led Rivers to think about the titles the Celtics might have won, in addition to the 17th banner that was earned in 2008. The team was never the same after Garnett suffered a knee injury in 2009, when the Celtics appeared to be setting themselves up for a strong title defense.
"I wish we could have had healthy runs,'' Rivers said. "This team won a title, got to another [NBA Finals, in 2010 against the Lakers], a Game 7, where they had a shot to win. Got to the Eastern Conference finals [this year] and one game away on the road, banged up. Because of Kevin's injury, I don't know if we could have gotten any more out of the group. I would have loved to have seen this team in this whole stretch where Kevin was injury-free.
"But you don't get do-overs. Everybody has injuries, not just us. Chicago -- [coach Tom Thibodeau] is sitting at home right now thinking, No [Derrick] Rose. It's part of the luck of it.
"I know everybody will look at the Big Three individually: Kevin, Ray and Paul. I'm never going to look at them individually. I'm going to look at them as a group. They all gave up plus-seven shots each. They gave up minutes. I asked them to play defense and move the ball, and they all did it, and they're willing to do it for the better of the team. So I think that's what we should focus on, how much they gave up to try to win. That's what I'll remember most about them.''