BOSTON -- The man in the green pullover had been griping for hours, his ire shifting from Jermaine O'Neal ("You're terrible") to Kevin Garnett ("Shoot, KG!") to Paul Pierce ("Run, Paul!"). Finally, with the clock ticking down in the Celtics' 88-79 loss to the Bulls, the agitated -- and yes, a little bit drunk -- fan had one final message for his team.
"We're done," he moaned, addressing no one in particular. "We're just too old."
There, in a couple of loud, slightly slurred sentences a widely accepted perception was expressed: Boston is too old to win. Indeed, Ray Allen (36), Kevin Garnett (35) and Paul Pierce (34) are on the back end of Hall-of-Fame careers, regressing physically by the day.
Are the Celtics old? Of course.
Is that why they are 4-6? Absolutely not.
The Big Three are the face of the franchise, but Boston's problems run a little further down the bench. Look at the teams that have had success over the years. San Antonio has won four titles during the Tim Duncan era but picked up the last two with Manu Ginobili (57th pick in the 1999 draft) and Tony Parker (28th overall in 2001) carrying a heavy load. Oklahoma City is fronted by Kevin Durant but scored big with bold, risky choices Russell Westbrook (No. 4 overall in 2008) and James Harden (No. 3 in 2009) while stealing Serge Ibaka (No. 24 in 2008) and shrewdly acquiring Eric Maynor, Thabo Sefolosha and Nazr Mohammed. The Bulls are Derrick Rose's team, but they wouldn't be atop the conference without Joakim Noah (No. 9 overall in 2007), Taj Gibson (26th in 2009) and Omer Asik (36th in 2008).
Boston? There have been opportunities to replenish the ranks. In 2008 the Celtics grabbed J.R Giddens (30th), passing on Mario Chalmers (34th), DeAndre Jordan (35th) and Luc Mbah a Moute (37th).
In 2010 the Celtics drafted Avery Bradley (19th), leaving Jordan Crawford (27th), Greivis Vasquez (28th) and Landry Fields (39th) in the pool.
You say finding successful second-round picks is just dumb luck? Ask Johnny Dawkins. The Stanford coach saw a Knicks scout in the stands at nearly every one of his games.
They had a young, bruising center in Kendrick Perkins but decided his limited offensive game and balky knee didn't warrant a large financial investment.
Yes, Allen, Garnett and Pierce are old. But they are not finished. Allen is shooting at a career-best clip. Pierce is still a formidable scorer. Garnett can still knock down a jump shot and defend at a high level.
The Celtics still have Rajon Rondo, a top-five point guard getting better by the year. What they don't have is a center, not unless you think Jermaine O'Neal and his shaky knees and dwindling athleticism can hold down the fort. They don't have fresh, young talent, not unless JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore slide into Doc Rivers's rotation.
They don't have it. And they need it. Bad.
Boston's Big Three are not what they were in 2008. Yet they are being asked to carry a similar, if not larger, load. With Perkins gone, Garnett is being called upon to be a physical, inside presence that, frankly, he has never been. Allen is getting fewer open looks now that Perkins is setting bone-crunching screens for Durant in Oklahoma City. Rondo has assumed a bigger piece of the scoring burden but Boston's offense still tends to stagnate when Pierce isn't on the floor.
The Celtics are not on Chicago's or Miami's level this season and age has little to do with it. They could have held onto Perkins, paid him the going rate in the offseason ($9 million to $10 million a year might have done it) and kept the big, physical presence they now lack. They could have drafted better, could have given Rivers more reliable options in the first three quarters so Allen, Garnett and Pierce could be rested and ready for the fourth.
They don't, and it's killing them. The Big Three continue to grind, continue to play with the heart of champions. They cut the Bulls lead to one point in the fourth quarter on Friday only to run out of gas at the end. Boston's trio of aging stars still have enough in the tank to win a championship. They just need more help to do it.