It was always going to end sooner than later. That was the understanding when the Celtics surrounded Paul Pierce with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen while holding onto Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins six years ago. This day seemed a long way off when they were celebrating the rebirth of their long-ago traditions.
But Friday night it was ending, and it seemed to be ending too soon. The Celtics were going to lose Game 3 of their opening-round series 90-76 to the No. 2 Knicks. They were going to be trailing 0-3 after failing to break 80 points in any of the games. Their record overall for the season would recede two games below .500 with one more loss to go. And yet there was an abiding sense of optimism throughout the building that they were going to find some way to extend themselves for one more game, and there was a bookending sense of disbelief when it didn't happen.
"We had a stretch where we really lost our spirit, and they made every shot," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers of the kind of juxtaposition that used to favor his team. "You just got to be mentally tougher: I didn't think we were tonight."
Pierce and Garnett expressed a new kind of fatigue after the game. They spoke among themselves for a long time in the trainer's room and then in the showers. What had defined them was now disintegrating, and they were coming to grips with it. "In the past we had a very good flow," said Garnett of the offense that was no more.
Garnett, 36, had played the kind of game that used to inspire his teammates. He grabbed 17 rebounds (more than double his average for the year) and he was typically active and emotional in the paint defensively. Still, the Knicks shot 50 percent overall and 40.7 percent from the 3-point line while Carmelo Anthony cut off the Celtics' hopes with shot after shot for his 26 points.
"He played so hard," said Rivers of Garnett. "He really wanted to win tonight. I thought there were a couple guys that stood out in that way. I got the sense that he was getting frustrated because he wanted them to be with him in the same spirit."
Little by little the stubborn charisma of the 2007-08 championship team had been winnowed away. First the role players off the bench were gone, and then Perkins. Allen defected. Rondo was injured, and that was the most painful loss because he was the youngest. Now Pierce and Garnett were being asked to create offense for themselves and it was too much. Garnett went 5-for-13 for his 12 points; Pierce had 17 points but missed all four of his 3-pointers and also committed five turnovers.
"I'm a fighter at the end of the day," said Garnett, choosing his words with fine precision. "But it takes more than one person."
Rondo had extended the careers of his elderly teammates; he prolonged an era that was expected to run little more than three years by consensus. As Rondo sat watching from behind the bench in his fake horn-rimmed glasses he and everyone else could see the age of his Hall of Fame teammates growing ever more pronounced, like wrinkles defined by the winter cold. Life without Rondo was especially hard on 35-year-old Pierce in his matchup with 28-year-old Anthony, who gave New York the explosively reliable finishing that the Celtics have been receiving from Pierce for a decade and a half. It was as if Pierce was guarding the memory of himself and being held to account for the suffering he had caused.
"You know, I was surprised, I thought we were a team that matched up really well with the Knicks," Pierce said. He talked about the open shots that he and his teammates should have been making. "Then they make a tough basket," he said of the Knicks' relentless replies. "You look at each other, you look down, some guys lose their confidence. But you have got to stick with it and understand it's hard, it's not easy. It's going to be difficult. The playoffs are hard to win and we've got to figure out a way to grind through."
He looked as if he couldn't believe that was the conclusion he was drawing at this time of year. How could they -- his Celtics -- not know better? But they were playing with no point guard against a Knicks team with three of them, and the 17 assists those three Knicks amassed was more than all of the Celtics together could create in this game they had to win. In all, the Celtics backcourt scored 23 points while leaning on 19 minutes from two midseason refugees of the Chinese league.
There was one last hope when Knicks guard J.R. Smith, posting up at the three-point line near the Celtic bench, reacted to tight defense by elbowing Jason Terry across the face, knocking him flat on his back as if it was an uppercut. It was an unusually senseless play and exactly what the Celtics fans had been hoping to see. Smith was oblivious to the fact that his team was 7:06 away from essentially finishing off a rival that had humiliated them for the last five years. He was ejected with a flagrant 2 foul and the Celtics fans woke up. Now the opponent had shown its weakness. Terry drove inside and flipped a pass back to Garnett for a midrange jumper. Then Pierce fed Jeff Green (21 points, nine rebounds and four assists) who drew a fifth foul from Kenyon Martin for a three-point play. In any of the previous five years they would have been on their way.
The fans, in their first game back since the bombings of the Marathon, were cheering mad for a vindictive response that was no longer in their Celtics. For at the other end Anthony was draining a turnaround on the baseline, and Tyson Chandler was slamming an alley-oop from Raymond Felton. It was 82-66 and there was no justice in any of it that Rivers could see.
"I wish I was playing," said Rivers quietly. His voice was graveled with emotion. "I didn't like that. You're up and ..." He decided it made no sense to waste his breath on J.R. Smith.
More than likely the Knicks will finish this sweep on Sunday and move on to an anticipated Eastern semifinal against the Pacers. The Celtics stars will be left to consider whether their futures include another year of basketball. If Garnett were to retire, as he threatened last summer and hinted at again by suggesting there would be no more All-Star games for him, then the Celtics could assign his remaining salary to amnesty. Pierce could be bought out for $5 million. In turn the Celtics could enter the summer with $5 million in cap space to be used in a trade. They could look forward to next season with a younger core of Rondo, Green, Avery Bradley, Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee and Jared Sullinger to go with their first-round pick. The future is not so dour until you start to wonder who will provide the leadership going forward. And good luck to them.
When Garnett came out of the trainer's room a long while after this penultimate loss, he rubbed the back of his head up against the wall and answered a question about the level of frustration he was feeling. "Very high," he whispered, his eyes shut. "Very high."
It always had to end someday. But it doesn't end now because the leaders of this era were lacking. If it ends here and tonight it's because they had no one left to lead.