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Pivotal moves ahead for Celtics

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  May 18, 2009 01:05 PM

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At the moment, including postseason, the running total stands at 114,412. That is the combined total of minutes played by Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce during their illustrious NBA careers.

The obvious questions:

How much sand is left in that hourglass?

How many minutes do they have left?

Eliminated from the postseason by the faster, stronger, and healthier Orlando Magic in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series, the Celtics limped out of the TD Banknorth Garden on Sunday night following a 101-82 defeat that left them with more questions than answers. Garnett is headed for knee surgery. Allen is entering the final year of his contract. And since July 1, 2007, Pierce has played in more regular season and postseason games (201) than Julio Lugo (186) and nearly as many as J.D. Drew (239), which can only make you wonder about the erosive effect of NBA life on Boston’s vaunted Big Three.

At least on paper, Garnett, Allen, and Pierce have one year remaining together. The Celtics’ oft-discussed window is more closed than open, which means there are some very important decisions to be made over the next 12-14 months. Some of the problems that faced the Celtics this postseason will still be there when the team reports to training camp at the end of the summer.

"Obviously we didn’t play great,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said in the wake of his team’s performance at the Garden last night. "With the way we were playing, with our legs [tiring], every game was another nail for us."

And that is true in the long-term as much as the short.

With regard to the 2009-10 season, in particular, the Celtics should compete for a championship again. The obvious challenge for vice-president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is to rebuild the Boston bench, be it partly by retaining Glen Davis (restricted free agent) and Eddie House (who has a player option) or going in another direction entirely. Regardless, the Celtics must take more of the burden off Garnett, Allen and Pierce, to whom the 2008-09 campaign did varying degrees of damage and who need to be healthier and/or fresher at the end of next season than they were at the end of this one.

In the case of Garnett, who will turn 33 tomorrow, a knee injury limited him to fewer games (57) than in any season since 1998-99, which might be good news were it not the result of injury. Meanwhile, Allen (who will be 34 in July) has played more minutes over the last two seasons (regular season and postseason) than in any other consecutive seasons of his career. As for Pierce, he looked terribly worn down by the end of Game 7, an understandable development given the amount of basketball he has played since the start of the 2007-08 season.

The good news? As a result of injuries to Garnett and Leon Powe as well as the extended absence of a true backup point guard, Davis and Rajon Rondo each took the next step in his development. The problem is that Rondo’s contract (like Allen’s) is due to expire after next season and Davis’s growth ultimately may benefit someone else if the Celtics are unable to retain him, which could put the Celtics right back where they are at the moment:

Good enough to make a spirited run but flawed enough to be vulnerable, especially as LeBron James reaches the prime of his career.

All of this brings us back to next season, which already seems to be growing in importance. Between now and the start of camp, Ainge has to keep the Celtics’ championship hopes intact while simultaneously positioning them for the pivotal summer of 2010. How much the Celtics are willing to spend beyond the luxury tax threshold is a critical question. Ainge needs to rebuild the bench without hindering his ability to spend next year, but he also needs to maximize that period of time during which Garnett, Pierce and Allen are together.

Talk about a delicate balance, especially as the Big Three creeps into its mid-30s, a problem the Celtics and their fans remember all too well from late '80s and early '90s.

All of this makes the 2009-10 season an especially critical one in the long-term health of the franchise, which makes this offseason all the more important, too. With The Greatest Free Agent Class in Sports History looming one year from now, teams are likely to approach this summer with trepidation. For the Celtics, that could create opportunity. (Antonio McDyess, anyone?) Yet, if the Celtics take a more passive approach to the offseason, they could fail to give Garnett, Allen and Pierce the support they need at this stage of their respective careers.

Let’s not be naïve here. As well-conditioned as Garnett, Allen and Pierce are, the minutes have piled up. Each is now more susceptible to injury than ever before, which means Rivers might have to start treating all three in the same deliberate way that San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich handles Tim Duncan. The Celtics might have to sacrifice games during the regular season, which means they might have to win on the road in the playoffs.

Almost two years ago, when Ainge executed the extreme makeover that took the Celtics from 58 losses to 66 victories – actually 82, including postseason – we all knew the potential risk: as the Celtics approached 2010, their nucleus would be aging. While Ainge was shrewd enough to stagger contracts so that the Celtics might be position for a smoother transition -- Pierce is up in 2011, Garnett in 2012 -- the challenge of replacing the Big Three already is creeping into play and the Celtics are coming off a season in which they did not win a championship.

If we’re saying the same thing a year from now, we can only wonder if the Celtics will be in better shape – or worse.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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