MIAMI -- One by one they walked off the court Wednesday night. Paul Pierce untucked his jersey and headed for the locker room. Kevin Garnett was right behind him, head down and wearing a blank stare. After a few hugs for the winning team, Ray Allen and Doc Rivers started their unexpected offseason.
The Celtics knew facing the Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals was going to be a challenge. But after reaching the NBA Finals in two of the last three seasons and having sent LeBron James and Dwyane Wade home last year in the playoffs, the Celtics still felt confident. Even in defeat, the Celtics were still full of pride.
Before the season, the expectations in Boston were another trip to the NBA Finals. But the younger, more athletic Heat ended that run with a 4-1 series victory. The final blow happened in Game 5 on Wednesday with a 97-87 victory for Miami.
The Celtics now face questions about their future and if they can remain a title contender. However, at least one key member of the organization appears to be staying for another year. After the game, Rivers said he plans to return to the Boston bench as the head coach. Rajon Rondo joked that he made Rivers sign a contract after the game.
"I'm leaning heavily toward coming back," Rivers said. "I haven't made that decision, but I can tell you I probably will. I've kind of come to that over the last couple of weeks. I'm a Celtic, and I love our guys. I want to win again here, and I'm competitive as hell. I have a competitive group, so we'll see. I can tell you that is where I am at today. Tomorrow, I may change my mind, but that's where I am at today."
Rivers still believes in his team and doesn't think the Celtics are done as a championship threat. He knows changes are coming to this roster, but the core of Allen, Garnett, Pierce and Rondo should remain intact.
Allen, who has a player option on his contract, also said he wants to stay in Boston.
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"This has been my team," Allen said. "I have been full steam ahead with this team. I don't have any plans to go anywhere else."
But aside from the Big Four, the entire roster can be in for an overhaul, something Rondo said might need to happen. Rondo said the Celtics need to get younger so that they can get through the regular season at full strength.
Jeff Green, a restricted free agent, said he wants to return to Boston. He came to the Celtics from Oklahoma City in the controversial trade for Kendrick Perkins in February. Green was inconsistent in trying to adjust to his new team and in a new role coming off the bench, but he said Boston is "a great place" and that his teammates were "amazing" in how they accepted him.
Glen Davis, an unrestricted free agent, also hopes to return, but he would like to have an expanded role, possibly as a starter.
"I love Boston," Davis said. "I wish I could stay, but you never know. I feel like I have a lot more to offer."
The Celtics could have a need for big men with Shaquille O'Neal possibly headed for retirement. He didn't play in Game 5 due to a lower leg injury, and his career, at 39, might be over, especially with a potential lockout looming. He does have an option to return to Boston at about $1.4 million next season, but he didn't stick around to answer questions about his future.
He had to watch from the bench as the Celtics were eliminated. Not exactly the way he wants his career to end.
"Nothing he can do," Rivers said. "It's not like he's not trying. You know, he's done everything you possibly can do to get healthy. And unfortunately for him, he just hasn't been able to do it. When he was originally injured, no one even thought it was that serious."
None of the Celtics ended this series the way they wanted, even in defeat. From Game 1 with Pierce getting ejected to Rondo dealing with a dislocated elbow and a bad back, everything seemed to be working against them. Meanwhile, James, Wade and Chris Bosh had highlight after highlight and now head to the Eastern Conference finals.
Rondo was limited to 30 minutes Wednesday when his back tightened up, and he didn't play in the fourth quarter. Jermaine O'Neal also dealt with a back problem in Game 5. But Pierce said the Celtics aren't going to make excuses. He said the Heat were the better team and deserved to win.
Still, the Celtics believe they can return as contenders next season. As Pierce said, even though the Big Three are all getting up in years (Allen turns 36 in July, Pierce turns 34 in October and Garnett will be 35 on May 19), they remain in good health. And as Rivers said, this team is still quite competitive.
"I definitely believe we can come back and make another run," Pierce said. "I think we're capable. We have to re-evaluate the roster and make a couple of moves. We'll see what happens."
For now, the Celtics have to settle for a disappointing defeat. It wasn't the ending they were hoping for, but anything short of a championship would have been considered a failure.
They now have to reload, but the good thing is their leader in Rivers appears to be back. And we'll soon find out if this group of Allen, Garnett, Pierce and Rondo can compete for another title when next year begins.