LOS ANGELES -- They streamed off the court quickly, heads down, trying to avoid the crush of Lakers players, coaches and staffers who flooded the floor in celebration of the team's 16th NBA championship. Back in the Celtics' locker room, the tears flowed freely, and those not completely crushed by the gut-wrenching 83-79 loss in Game 7 on Thursday consoled those who were.
"I don't think there was a dry eye," coach Doc Rivers said.
The Lakers won this game, the Celtics did not lose it. Undermanned without Kendrick Perkins and outgunned by a supremely skilled Lakers team energized by a rabid home crowd, Boston left everything on the floor. The Celtics mucked up the game early, slowing L.A.'s attack with their trademark physical play and forced Kobe Bryant into one of the most horrific shooting nights (6-of-24) of his career. They muscled out a 13-point lead in the third quarter and clung to a two-point edge heading into the fourth.
"It was exactly the type of game that we wanted," Rivers said. "We got [Rajon] Rondo on the break. We knew with Rasheed [Wallace] and Kevin [Garnett] on the floor we would get more at-the-basket attacks because of the spacing on the floor."
They tried to battle to the end but before they could get there, it all unraveled. Boston's patchwork front line -- necessitated by the injury to Perkins -- of Garnett, Wallace and Glen Davis struggled mightily to keep the Lakers out of the paint. But L.A.'s relentless assault on the rim (37 free throws to the Celtics' 17) and backboards (a 53-40 rebounding advantage) eventually took its toll. Each possession became more grueling. By the middle of the fourth quarter Garnett was hunched over with exhaustion while Wallace trudged up and down the floor, his body battered by leg cramps that developed over a playoff-high 36 minutes.
"I thought a couple of things hurt us," Rivers said. "When Rasheed started getting cramps, that was a killer for us because they attacked our lack of size after that and then it made me -- forced me -- to extend Kevin's minutes, which I know is not good. Because once he goes over that number, it's tough for him to come back."
Fatigued, the game began to slip away. Bryant kept missing, but he never stopped attacking. He went to the line nine times in the fourth quarter (converting eight). So, too, did Pau Gasol, who converted six of his nine free-throw attempts, pulled down three key offensive rebounds and made two of his three shots in the period. Ron Artest pressured Paul Pierce on defense and knocked down two shots -- including a back-breaking three -- in the fourth.
"They scored 30 points in the fourth quarter," Rivers said, "and for us, as a defensive group, that's the toughest part to swallow."
Except it's not. The toughest part is that, for this group, this run to the Finals may be its last.
"We're not going to be the same team next year," Rivers said. "Guys are not going to be there."
Indeed, the Celtics face a summer of uncertainty. It will begin with Rivers, who must decide whether his desire to coach outweighs his desire to watch his children grow up. Rivers' family is based in Orlando, but his kids are seeking their own success all over the country. His oldest son, Jeremiah, is a senior playing at Indiana. His daughter, Callie, is also a senior and a member of Florida's volleyball team. Austin Rivers is a high school senior and ranked among the top prospects nationally, and Rivers' youngest son, Spencer, plays in the eighth grade. The Celtics have granted Rivers wide freedoms to travel to see his family, but the strain of being so far removed from his children's lives started to take a noticeable physical toll on Rivers this season.
"I'm going to go and watch my kids play AAU basketball," Rivers said. "And I'm going to wait for a little bit."
The Celtics are willing to wait on Rivers, but there are other, more pressing concerns. Ray Allen is an unrestricted free agent and there are questions about just what kind of financial commitment Boston is willing to make to its soon-to-be 35-year-old shooting guard. Multiple league executives believe Allen will be seeking a three- or four-year deal between $8 million to $10 million annually, with teams like New York or New Jersey looming as candidates to offer it. It's that potential price tag that had the Celtics shopping Allen at midseason.
"I'll deal with that when the time comes," Allen said. "But it's obvious I don't want to be anywhere else."
There could be another member of the Big Three on the market, too. Pierce has a player option for $21.5 million next season. But with the collective bargaining agreement set to expire next summer and a new one expected to significantly reduce player salaries, several prominent players (including Dirk Nowitzki and Amar'e Stoudemire) are planning to opt out of lucrative contracts in order to sign new deals under the existing agreement. Pierce, 32, could leave the $21.5 million on the table with the expectation that he could score a contract worth $50 million to $60 million in the offseason.
Nate Robinson, Tony Allen and Brian Scalabrine are free agents, and after the game, Rivers hinted that Wallace could retire. None are considered irreplaceable but they do have to be replaced.
Things don't have to change. Rivers could be back. Top assistant Tom Thibodeau, who will be on the Bulls' sideline next season, will need to be replaced, but there is growing support within the organization for the candidacy of ex-Nets coach Lawrence Frank, a Thibodeau-like workaholic who is respected by both Rivers and Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, to fill his seat on the bench. After the game, Rivers made his opening pitch for the players to return, reminding them that the '08 championship team -- the one with a healthy Perkins -- had still yet to have a true chance to defend its title.
"I just can't stress enough how crazy-close this team was," Rivers said. "They are the type of group that could scream at each other but let no one pick on any of them. That's a special group."