Way back when, after the Celtics seemed buried by a blizzard of ping-pong balls, we knew there was a tradeoff. We knew the opening might be brief. We knew that the Celtics got older even as they got better overnight, and we knew there were potential pitfalls.
Roughly 12 hours after the Celtics completed a 62-20 season with a victory over the Washington Wizards last night, no-nonsense coach Doc Rivers made his weekly appearance on WEEI this morning and delivered the news we all feared: Garnett won’t be ready for Game 1 of the playoffs on Saturday and he won’t be ready for Game 2, either. In fact, he very likely won’t play in the postseason at all. The Celtics have lost their most valuable player, the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and we all know what that means.
No duck boats for the Celtics this year. No rolling rally and no reunion with the Lakers. No opening night ceremony in the fall to celebrate the raise of Banner 18.
"No," typically forthright Celtics vice president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told the Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy last night when asked if the Celtics could win a title without Garnett this season. Added Ainge, qualifying the statement, "It would be a difficult task."
OK, fine. So the Celtics won’t win another championship this year. We all were due for some humility around here, anyway. From early 2002 through the middle of 2008, Boston took home six world titles as if ordering a box of donuts: three Super Bowls, two World Series, and one NBA championship. Since that time, Tom Brady and now Garnett have suffered what proved to be season-ending knee injuries -- or so it seems -- and the Red Sox have stumbled out of the game with a 3-6 start.
Whoever thought we’d be giving such thanks for the Bruins?
In the coming days, there is likely to be a great deal of rhetoric from the Celtics, who are nothing if not professional and determined. They have no choice but to play without Garnett, they will tell us. If Rivers is smart, he will use media and public doubt as a motivator for his team. The Celtics should still beat Chicago in the first round and they might even beat Orlando in the second, but anything after that would be akin to the miracle at Lake Placid.
The real question: What does this mean long-term? Will Garnett be the same after this? Will the Big Three? From the moment Ainge turned the Celtics from a Ford Pinto into a Cadillac Escalade, we knew the drawback: The new car had some miles on it. Ray Allen will be 34 this summer, Garnett will turn 33 next month, Paul Pierce will be 32 in October. The 2009-10 season could be their last time together given that it is the final year of Allen’s contract with the team.
Ainge being the shrewd man he is, the Celtics are as well-positioned for the long term as they could be, at least at the moment. Assuming the Celtics are under the salary cap following the 2009-10 season -- and right now, they are projected to be -- Ainge will have a maximum contract to offer in what looks like the greatest free-agent class of all time. He could have more money to play with when Pierce’s deal comes up the following year, even more money when Garnett comes up in 2012. The Celtics will have every opportunity to extend this luxurious ride of theirs, the one that has produced a stunning 144 combined regular season and postseason victories since the fall of 2007.
Nonetheless, in the wake of news like the Garnett injury, we cannot help but wonder: The good times have to end at some point, don’t they? Can they really go on forever? Boston went nearly 16 years without winning a world title, from 1986-2002, before the Patriots made their miraculous run in the wake of Sept. 11. Up through and including last summer, Boston really hasn’t stopped winning since. No year has seemed to pass without at least one rally at City Hall Plaza. If you lived here, you’d be celebrating a championship now.
Now Garnett is out and the Celtics have been dealt a major blow, and we all have been reminded just how difficult it is to win. You need good players. You need good management, coaching and leadership. You need luck and you need health, not necessarily in that order, and you need to remember that winning is a reward more than it is a birthright, no matter much you can sometimes take it for granted.
The 2008-09 Celtics? They start the playoffs on Saturday. The Bruins begin tonight. The Red Sox return to the work tomorrow and the NFL Draft is next weekend. The competition goes on and the pursuit of excellence continues, and the games have a way of reminding you that winning is, above all else, an extremely difficult task that requires constant, maximum effort capable of wearing you down, breaking you down, cutting you out at the knees.
Just ask the Patriots.
And now, ask the Celtics, too.
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