BOSTON -- A long, long time ago, the Celtics took on an expensive gamble when they surrounded Paul Pierce with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett on the downside of their careers. How much production could they expect from a team of stars on the wrong side of their peak years?
The answer has defied all expectations. The Celtics are now launching Year Six of a plan that was expected to expire two or three years ago. In the meantime they've won a championship and reached the seventh games of another NBA Finals as well as a conference final. Maybe no one else believes they can win another championship. The Celtics are convinced otherwise.
``We believe it,'' said Jason Terry, their new 35-year old sixth man. ``We believe it to a man.''
Pierce will be 35 next month. He arrived Friday for the opening of training camp without a limp and looking like his old self. He grinned when someone asked if he had lost weight. "My last 10 years in the NBA I've heard that,'' he said.
When the Celtics' season ended with a fourth-quarter loss in Game 7 of the conference final at Miami last spring, Pierce wasn't sure if he and his peer group would return. After sitting through midseason rumors that he and Allen would be traded -- and learning that Allen had in fact been told he was being sent to Memphis, before the deadline trade was rescinded by the Grizzlies -- he took seriously the talk of a breakup.
Pierce wasn't sure what Boston's management had in mind, and he also didn't know whether Garnett would be coming back after hearing his teammate declare numerous times that he would retire. "I really wasn't confident he was coming back,'' said Pierce. When he would ask Garnett about his future, the answer would be, "This is it.''
If Garnett was going to retire, then Pierce was going to consider retiring as well, he said. "I really didn't want to go through a rebuilding phase,'' said Pierce. "It was something I would have thought really long and hard about. If another team was out there for me, I don't know.''
When Pierce's consideration of retirement was relayed to Danny Ainge, the Celtics president smirked. Coach Doc Rivers's reaction was more blunt. "Paul would not have retired,'' said Rivers. "I saw his contract; he would not have retired.''
Garnett, 36, acknowledged that he had seriously considered ending his career after 17 years. "I did give it some real thought,'' he said, even as Rivers remained skeptical of losing his favorite player. "Kevin told me that (he was going to retire) all year,'' said Rivers. "It was a bunch of crap. I never believed it. He just has too much passion.''
All of this talk of retirement is the backstory that explains why the Celtics are still relevant more than five years after Pierce, Garnett and Rajon Rondo came together. They want to win, they believe they should win, and more than ever they recognize they cannot count on future opportunities to win.
"I say right now I have two years on my contract and I want to make the most out of them,'' Pierce told SI.com Friday. "It's gone by so fast, man, it's just like so many years in the NBA, and I look up and I'm one of the elder statesman in all of the NBA. But I still feel like I can play at a high level, even at this age. If you look at this era of basketball, you see more and more players playing at 35, 36, 37, and playing at a high level -- such as guys like Steve Nash, myself, Kevin, Ray (Allen). I just think it's all about how you take care of yourself.
"But there's a sense of urgency to try to win another championship, knowing that I probably don't have too many more years left to play this game, knowing that you have so many young up-and-coming superstars coming into the league. So you just want to try to take advantage of it when you can.''
How will he decide when it's time to quit?
"I'm going to listen to my body,'' he said. "When you look at the players of the past who have retired, they always say they probably should have listened to their body a year or two earlier; or if they can't guard their position anymore, or how motivated you are. Motivation is not going to be a problem for me to want to get out there. I think it's all depending on my health and what type of level I come in at and possibly a role or a team I'm going to play on, so it's a combination of a lot of things that affect how long I'll play.''
What does his body say?
"That I can play another 10,'' he said, and he laughed hard.
Pierce laughed because he knows his body will be speaking to him in a different language as the 15th year of his career wears on him. Along the way this season will serve two purposes for the Celtics. They'll be trying to win now, and they'll also be educating the next generation in optimal conditions. Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Courtney Lee and rookies Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo -- all 26 or younger -- will be immersed in the world of Garnett, Pierce and Terry. They'll learn how to prepare, compete and win at the highest level, with the hope that the lessons will endure long after Pierce, Garnett and Terry have gone.
The Celtics could have torn it down in order to pursue an agenda of rebuilding with high-end lottery picks, but think about the losing environment in which that talent would have been raised. It is a more promising course to count on some of these players turning into assets to be traded for a superstar in the next year or two -- or that a free agent could be added to lead them in 2014, when they'll next have cap space following the expiration of Pierce's option year. (That option is held by the Celtics, by the way -- they could waive Pierce next summer at a cost of no more than $5 million, or $4 million if he plays fewer than half of the games this season. But it would take some form of catastrophe to convince them to cut loose their signature player.)
In the meantime they've replaced the departed Allen with Terry and Courtney Lee. Terry will provide three-point shooting off the bench while serving as the best backup Rondo has had at point guard. The Celtics believe they could wind up with the NBA's deepest backcourt once Bradley returns in midseason from surgeries to both shoulders.
Sullinger will help Garnett with the rebounding, and the return of Green will give Pierce help against LeBron James. "We have one target and that's Miami,'' said Rivers, and it doesn't much matter if no one else believes Boston can upset the defending champions after losing to them each of the last two postseasons. The Celtics were decimated last season and yet had two chances to beat Miami last June. They will believe in their chances in part because of their improved depth, but mainly because Miami has never been able to match up with Rondo, and also because the Celtics have added length (Jason Collins, Darko Milicic, Melo and Chris Wilcox) around Garnett to exploit Miami's absence of size under the basket.
The Celtics may not be able to stop LeBron. Their goal will be to create mismatches of their own, via Rondo and Garnett, and hope that their depth will enable their entire team to be healthy for the first time in years. It's another variation of a story we've heard many times before. It may be familiar, but it never grows dull.