Celtics enter summer of questions after Game 7 loss to Heat

The Boston Celtics fell to the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. (Associated Press)

MIAMI -- The gameplan was sound and the bodies held up, they took a lead to halftime and they kept their composure. If there was a big-picture strategy to this Boston Celtics season of injuries and surgeries, sprains and spurs, it was to hang on and hang on and hang on. They wouldn't beat themselves. Maybe everyone else would crack first. Many did; Miami didn't.

The Heat finally shifted to a sixth gear on Saturday night, a gear that the Celtics couldn't reach. It took until the fourth quarter of Game 7 in a series that saw legendary performances, surprising road wins and a course-altering comeback from injury for Miami to do it. The Heat prevailed 101-88 to advance to the 2012 NBA Finals, where they will face the Oklahoma City Thunder. Both the Heat and the Thunder boast rosters constructed around three stars whose games complement each other. The highly-anticipated match-up will be one of Boston's (and San Antonio's) many legacies.

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The newer version of the Big 3 did in the original on Saturday. The Heat and Celtics were tied 73-73 as they entered the final quarter. There, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh combined for 28 points on 10-for-17 shooting. Boston's Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett -- playing perhaps their final game together -- combined for seven points on 3-for-10 shooting. Rajon Rondo, their understudy and motor, managed six points on 3-for-6 shooting. It wasn't enough, especially with Bosh, back from an abdominal injury, knocking down three crucial 3-pointers.

"Honestly, I just thought we had nothing left," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "That's how it felt as a coach."

After losing Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox, Jermaine O'Neal and Avery Bradley to injury during the season and trotting out a lineup that included Pierce and Allen who were both playing at less than 100 percent there are worse crimes than running out of gas. 

"Great season," Rondo said simply. "We let this one slip away."

The Celtics lost with their pride fully intact and with the full respect of their opponent.

"You can never relax at all on the court when you're competing against those guys," James said. "You can never feel comfortable. You always feel on edge when you go against them. This is their chemistry that they built over the years. It's like no other team that I've ever faced in the postseason. They're great. They're great."

Basketball games can be lost in so many ways; basketball teams can falter in so many ways. Players can undermine or tune out or have philosophical differences with their coach. Egos can split a locker room. Contracts, former contracts and future contracts can determine the wrong pecking order. Minutes can be wrongly divvied up based on a faulty management vision or a coaching staff's pet peeves.

What you didn't know about the modern-era Boston Celtics was who was going to be healthy on a given night. (And why Rondo acts the way he does.) What you did know was that their results would be determined on the court, with an elite core group empowered to seek the outcome and with a coach who trusted, motivated, pushed and prodded when necessary. 

"Kevin, Ray and Paul, I'm never going to look at them individually, I'm going to look at them as a group collective," Rivers said, when asked to assess the Big 3's legacy. "They all gave up seven-plus shots each. They gave up minutes. I asked them to defend and move the ball, and they all did it, and they're willing to do it for the better of the team. 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."

The past tense overwhelmed Rivers' statement there. While Pierce is under contract for the future, with a deal that includes a player option through 2013-14, both Garnett and Allen are unrestricted free agents. The immediate desire to bring back the band was strong on Saturday, what with a third Finals trip in five years so tantalizingly close. 

Whether that is possible is up to the 36-year-old Garnett, who was a long, athletic thorn in the Heat's side throughout the Eastern Conference finals. He posted averages of 19.1 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. He went out in this series exactly as you would expect: stepping on LeBron James' foot during a jump ball to get into his head, walking off the court early and refusing to shake hands, and dodging the media throng without taking post-game questions. His terms. He's never going to change, and everyone accepted that a long time ago.

Pierce and Rondo are the only truly sure things on the roster heading into next season. More than anything, Boston's future depends on whether the surly rebounding and jump-shooting machine wants another go-around. If Garnett says he is in, how could they not try to run it back? Especially after this season's results and the affection the fanbase has for the group? But there have been rumors around Garnett, of retirement and free agency. If he departs, the whole thing crumbles.

Speaking from the AmericanAirlines Arena's visiting locker room after the loss, Pierce made clear Garnett's importance to the team and also his desire for the team's immediate future.

"He's been everything with his locker room presence, desire, determination and leadership," Pierce said. "He changed the culture of everything we did around here. He made everyone accountable. It'll be great for me to end my career with Kevin. I have a couple of years left. Hopefully management can add a few pieces that we need to get over the hump. If not, it's been a tremendous ride."

Allen, 36, figures to be a high-demand free agent given his shooting ability, immaculate conditioning and playoff experience. He told reporters that his immediate plan is to get surgery on his ankle before seeing what the future holds. 

"I don't know what Kevin's situation is," he admitted, his eyes red with emotion. "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. But four of us know how to play basketball. We know how to win games."

Of that, there is no question. Since forming during the summer of 2007, the Celtics went 273-121 (.693) in the regular season, made three Eastern Conference finals, went to the Finals twice and won a title.

"Five years has gone quickly, but it seems like it has lasted forever," Allen said. "We've played in a lot of big games. We won a championship together. The things that we do off the floor together. It's just been a special time. It's been a special moment."

"I wish we could have had healthy runs," Rivers lamented.

The end of an NBA team's season, especially in the playoffs, is always like a crash test: 100 miles per hour for an indefinite period of time and then, bang, everything comes to an immediate stop.

That feeling went even deeper in the Boston locker room. This wasn't just one season ending, but a half-decade of premier basketball seeing its possible conclusion at the hands of a rising rival. To the buzzer, they made no excuses, played hard and smart, and pushed themselves past a point, physically, that few of their competitors could match. They angered, intimidated and annoyed a lot of people along the way. They polarized outsiders as they pulled together to form the league's tightest locker room family.

So if this has to be the end, they seemed to hint, at least let it linger.

"I just want to stick with this group, if it's a couple more days, a couple more weeks, or whatever," Rivers said. "I just want to stick with them."

They stuck with each other and they made it this far. Just short.
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