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Even in absence of final title, these Celtics were worth it

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  June 18, 2010 09:28 AM

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The window closed just before midnight Eastern Daylight Time, the worn and weary Celtics looking every bit their age and facing the cruel inevitability of change. This was always part of the deal, of course. It was never a question of reading the fine print. The terms of this arrangement were spelled out in bold, capital letters the day Danny Ainge brought the Celtics back from the dead precisely 1,053 days ago.

Regrets? No sir, no way, no how. Not even after the Celtics lost to the Los Angeles Lakers last night in a Game 7 of the NBA Finals played with the hand-to-hand combat of a testy neighborhood pickup game. The Lakers annihilated the Celtics on the boards in this contest. Los Angeles was just a little better, a little deeper and a little tougher. The Lakers beat the Celtics fairly and squarely, beat them with skill and size, beat them with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol and even Ron Artest. The Lakers even may have beaten Rasheed Wallace into retirement and given Doc Rivers a final, decisive push back into the real world.

Even if Rivers was prepared to jump just the same.

"Well, listen, we had a goal before the year was started, and we didn't say we weren't going to go through some trials and tribulations. We just had a goal to get here, and that was our goal - and to win it,’’ an exhausted and exasperated Rivers told the world last night after the Celtics’ 83-79 loss. "So, whatever we had to go through was worth it -- the injuries, the chemistry, just everything. It was worth it at the end of the day, and I think every guy would tell you that.’’

The coach of the Celtics was addressing a question specifically about this season, mind you, but it certainly sounded like he was talking about the bigger picture, too. Whatever we had to go through was worth it. And whatever may come will have been worth it, too. The Celtics went 24-58 during the 2006-07 season, a campaign that ended with what seemed like their most backbreaking defeat, a fifth-place finish in the tease that is the NBA draft lottery. Roughly a couple of months later, Ainge basically had traded anything that wasn’t nailed down for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, an indisputable deal with the devil that came with an expiration date of June 2010.

In three years, these Celtics went a combined 216-94 in regular and postseason play, winning eight of the 10 playoff series in which they participated. They won one title and came within four points of another. They extended a most magical run for a city that now has played for eight championships in the last nine years and participated in a whopping 12 conference or league championships since New Year’s Day 2002. (Five in the AFC, four in the AL, three in the NBA Eastern Conference.) Mostly, they resurrected the hopes and expectations of a storied franchise while reigniting the interest of what had become a very stale fan base.

But now, after 36 months of an interest and payment free existence, the bills start coming. And everybody knows it.

Rivers is gone, folks. For him to return now would require a complete and unexpected reversal. Following last night’s game, Rivers was asked about the play and development of Rajon Rondo, and the coach said he "was" happy to have been a part of it. Said the experience "was" amazing. Then Rivers got up from his seat while issuing a heartfelt thanks to assembled media and listeners, and you got the feeling that he wasn’t merely saying goodbye at the end of these Finals. He was saying goodbye for good, at least to Boston, where he has brought as much dignity and grace to his profession as any coach or manager who ever has presided over one of our sports teams.

Do not ever forget what Rivers endured here. He coached the Celtics for three seasons before Garnett and Allen showed up. When some foolishly called for his dismissal – in and out of the Celtics organization – Ainge stood by him unfailingly. In retrospect, there is not a single Celtics team that underachieved during Rivers’s tenure, and that is entirely a reflection on the coach.

The players? They gave everything they had last night and during the playoffs, even if they coasted during the regular season. In hindsight, again, there was really no other way. The Celtics might have had home court for Games 6 and 7 had they treated the regular season with slightly more urgency, but then, they might not have had the legs to make this run at all. The great Phil Jackson himself (just ask him) credited Rivers for the manner in which he brought this group to the NBA Finals, which was a nice way of saying that the Celtics were far too old to be running marathons anymore. The 2009-10 Celtics played precisely 106 games from start to finish, and they had to take a few nights off during the playoffs to reach that number.

All of this leaves Ainge with quite a bit of work to do, though this challenge looks like child’s play to the one he faced three years ago at this time. Paul Pierce could opt out of his contract. Ray Allen is a free agent. Wallace may retire. Garnett clearly is not the player he once was. Ainge knew all of this was inevitable when he rebuilt the Celtics during the summer of 2007, and he’ll show no remorse now because he showed no hesitation then. The Celtics are not champions today because they simply ran into a better, younger team, and the challenge for Ainge now is to make the Celtics better and younger, too.

Of course, there is every chance this may take a little while.

But you shouldn’t need Doc Rivers today to tell you it was worth it.

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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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