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A brief postmortem on an admirable team

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  June 18, 2010 06:48 PM

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You woke up this morning and surely groaned at the disappointing recollection, remembering the numbers 83 and 79 even before all of your synapses had warmed up their engines. And that's presuming you slept much at all. The Celtics could have been World Champions. Instead, the spoils go to the Lakers, not to mention Ron Artest's psychiatrist.

The feeling of disappointment, of missed shots and missed opportunities, will linger into the offseason. Why did Artest suddenly own a picturesque dead-eye jumper when it mattered the most? Why have Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett swapped on court personas from two years ago, with The Spaniard, as Kobe Bryant sort-of-affectionately called him, outrebounding his former tormentor, 18-3? Why did Derek Fisher have to add his big shot-in-the-big-moment legacy? Why did the season-long flaws -- weak rebounding, the inability to close out games late -- have to be their ultimate downfall?

The loss -- especially to that team -- stinks. But this isn't Grady '03 or Tyree '07. Yes, Artest may now have a curse word for a middle name in these parts, and creative descriptions of Sasha Vujacic were popular long before the most sniveling Laker drilled two clutch free throws in the final seconds. But there is some small measure of solace in that the Celtics left it all the court last night, almost literally given the rugby-like scrum for so many loose balls in the first three let-'em-play-boys quarters. No, they didn't deliver in the end, failing to enhance their New Big 3 legacy with a second title. But it was not from a lack of effort. They lost to a team with the two best players in the series, Bryant and Gasol. Unfortunately, the other side was just a little better.

You know we'll remember them well. But it's a sure bet that Danny Ainge won't be so nostalgic. He was here for the decline of the Original Big 3, when sentiment prevented trading Kevin McHale or Robert Parish when they were beginning to decline. (Larry? Well, that was justifiably unthinkable, especially the rumor he might have been dealt to the Pacers for Chuck Person and other parts.) Ainge was the first of that iconic starting five from the mid-'80s to go, exiled to Sacramento for 14 feet of affable mediocrity in Ed Pinckney and Joe Kleine. Sentimentality isn't his game, and he won't be shy about sending any of these guys to their proverbial Sacramento if he thinks it makes his team better.

Trades or no trades, it's going to be different around here next year. Ray Allen may not be back, and maybe that's just as well. His defensive effort on Kobe was noble. But his beautiful, deadly jump shot, the main reason he will be feted in Springfield someday, suddenly had the look and effect of Tony Allen's last night. If just two more had dropped . . .

Paul Pierce can opt out of his deal, and with the uncertain labor situation, it might be the prudent thing to do, at least in his agent's mind. Rasheed Wallace, who played his best when it mattered the most, just as he told his would in the midst of his 82-game paid holiday, might retire, and I sincerely hope he does not, something I could not have imagined writing six weeks ago. The man knows how to play intelligent, efficient basketball. And when he chooses to, he is a marvel to watch, with his high-arcing bank shots and sack of sneaky defensive tricks, including the old Rick Mahorn deception of pulling away when an offensive player tries to lean on him, sometimes leading to an embarrassing fall to the floor, a turnover, and a good laugh.

And there's the coach, Doc Rivers. I've written this before, but it bears repeating given that last night's postgame press conference, during which he spoke of his team emotionally and in the past tense, certainly felt like an exit interview. He is the perfect coach for this proud bunch, shrewd enough with the Xs and Os, always on point when delivering a message ("keep being aggressive" and "trust each other, don't be a hero" were two of his spot-on go-to pleas last night), and an absolutely gifted and genuine people person. Yes, his use of the bench through the years brought him criticism in certain circles, but would you have had the daring to stick with Big Baby, Nate Robinson, and the second unit in the pivotal moments of Game 4? Doc is his own man, the Terry Francona of basketball, and if he never won you over, that's an issue with yourself, not one with him. I'm 99 percent sure he's gone. That other 1 percent? That represents the desperate hope that he finds it as hard to move on from this team as we are right now.

Maybe I'm alone in this, but my fondness for this team comes pretty close to, if not slightly exceeds, my fondness of the champs from two years ago. Yes, Banner 17 was wonderful, and how I would have loved to see Leon Powe, James Posey, and especially the 2007-08 version of P.J. Brown last night. But there was just a bit of a mercenary vibe with that team, a small one, yes, but we really embraced them as entirely ours only after they were champions. Garnett and Allen had just arrived, and we weren't fully aware of their quirks and traits and strengths and flaws like we are now, after three seasons, through the peaks and valleys and victories and disappointments. KG and Ray, they're our guys now. We've watched them through the battles. We know who they are. We remember the hard, winding journey to get here, a journey that was supposed to end in Orlando, if not Cleveland before.

Which is why it was hard to watch them lose when victory was at their fingertips, only to deflect away to the Lakers like so many rebounds. And why it will be harder to watch them go, disappointment their parting memory of a three-year ride that all in all has been a hell of a lot of fun, save for the famous final scene.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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