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Rondo injury could hasten breakup of the Celtics

Rajon Rondo's torn ACL could bring an end to the Celtics' era. (US Presswire)

Beyond the devastation to the Celtics, through the haze of an improbable, double-overtime victory over Miami without Rajon Rondo on Sunday, there looms a harsh reality: Rondo's season-ending torn ACL could bring an end to the Celtics of this era for good.

The emotional scene in Boston, with Rondo watching as the Celtics held off the Heat 100-98, and then embracing coach Doc Rivers in the tunnel afterward, was one more display of the greatness of these Celtics -- the fight, the unbreakable heart of a champion. But reality hit these Celtics like a thunderclap after the game, when Paul Pierce learned Rondo's fate in the postgame interview on the court and Rivers told the players in the locker room that they'd lost their leader, their engine.

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Rivers had carried the news of Rondo's injury with him through 58 minutes of hard-nosed, Boston basketball on a Sunday afternoon. Afterward, the heart and soul of the Celtics was not willing to concede that this was the end.

"You can write the obituary," Rivers said. "But I'm not."

The spectre of injury in sports is harsh, and so, too, is the reality that follows. The Celtics, barely in the playoff picture with Rondo, already were at a crossroads: Do they keep what's left of the Big Four together for one more run, or look to the future? That horizon just became a whole lot shorter.

Before Rondo's knee surgery was even scheduled, rival executives already began speculating that the loss of the Celtics' best player could accelerate the inevitable rebuild. Much of the speculation, for good reason, surrounds Pierce, whose scoring panache could push a contender over the top without compromising the plan for the future. Pierce's contract, with only $4 million guaranteed next season, is as tradeable as it gets in the NBA.

One team that rival execs expect to be at the forefront of the Pierce pursuit is Memphis, which delayed but did not solve its long-term payroll concerns by getting under the luxury-tax line with last week's trade with Cleveland. While Memphis can survive for the rest of this season without trading Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol, it still cannot sustain such a top-heavy payroll for the next two seasons. Pierce would keep the Grizzlies dangerous -- arguably, make them more dangerous -- for the rest of this season, and allow them to reorganize their spending as soon as next season.

Would some big-spending contender -- the Nets, perhaps -- be willing to go all-in with a two-year rental of Kevin Garnett, whose ferocity and defensive leadership would cost $12.4 million next season plus the $6 million he'll be guaranteed in 2014-15 at age 38?

Conversely, could the Celtics find a way to shed a couple of spare parts for a viable point guard to replace Rondo and stitch their core group back together for one more run? The Raptors are almost certain to trade either Jose Calderon ($10.6 million expiring contract) or Kyle Lowry (only $1 million guaranteed next season). Either one would give Boston a chance to ride it out with their current group and deal with the tough decisions around the draft or in July.

What's clear is that the Celtics didn't just lose one of the league's most dynamic, important players Sunday. They may have lost a piece of themselves, and of an era.

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