The triumphant music thundered and a torrent of red and gold confetti poured down from the gray ceiling, another celebration arriving at the expense of the beaten Celtics. They hurried off the court, making it into the tunnel just before the glittering rain. For the next few minutes they sat in the visitors' locker room at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena with their feet numbed in buckets of ice as they considered all that had gone wrong over these last two years, and how little time they had left to make it right again.
Is this the last stand for the 2007--08 champs? Their performance last Saturday in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal against Cleveland, a game Boston controlled for long stretches, indicated that the series will most likely not be a rout for the top-seeded Cavs. But the result, a 101--93 Cleveland win, was all too familiar for a Celtics team that couldn't help but recognize the justice in their defeat, a sense that maybe they'd received their due after a season of too many blown leads and too many nights when they failed to maintain their high standards of two years ago. "It was like the games during the regular season didn't have enough meaning [for us] to fight through whatever adversity we might find," said Boston general manager Danny Ainge last week. "The signature [issue] of our postseason was going to be, What kind of resolve do we really have?"
Ainge would neither appreciate nor be surprised by the answer to that question on Saturday after the Celtics dominated the first half and led by 11 points in the third quarter—only to watch Cleveland outscore them 43--24 over the final 18 minutes. Though LeBron James admitted to "tentative" play and "thinking too much" about his painfully sprained and bruised right shooting elbow, he still had 35 points, seven assists, seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks while never appearing to worry that his team wouldn't prevail. "We've been there before," said Boston point guard Rajon Rondo, whose team-leading 27 points and 12 assists went for naught. "We were up at halftime again, and we lost a double-digit lead again, and we didn't get the win." Again.
When the Celtics made their dramatic moves in the summer of 2007 to supplement forward Paul Pierce with guard Ray Allen and forward Kevin Garnett, they acknowledged that the remade squad had a three-to-four-year window of contention. Now they must appreciate how time does fly. All season Boston has struggled to overcome knee injuries to the 32-year-old Pierce and the 33-year-old Garnett while dealing with trade rumors involving Allen, 34, who becomes a free agent after the season. Throughout the year, coach Doc Rivers was forced to choose between managing the health of his elderly stars and trying to pile up wins to improve his playoff position. The Celtics wound up with a disappointing 50--32 record—twice as many losses as during their 2007--08 championship season—and the No. 4 seed in the East, but Rivers, Ainge and CEO--managing partner Wyc Grousbeck all agree that the injuries left them with no choice at all.
"What else are we here for?" Rivers said over a plate of Phoenix rolls at Douzo in Boston's Back Bay the night after his team eliminated the Heat in the first round. "We won a title, but that's not enough for me and it shouldn't be enough for anybody. If we're not trying to win it with this group, then break it up and go young. But I owe it to them, as long as they're here, to go all in. Whether that's good enough or not, we'll find that out. I believe it is."
Even as Rivers embarked on his long-shot run to steal an 18th title for the NBA's winningest franchise, Ainge was seeking to create a new contender out of the old pieces. In February the Celtics discussed a makeover that would have dealt Allen to the Wizards for a package involving forward Caron Butler, followed by a second blockbuster that would have sent center Kendrick Perkins and other salaries to the Jazz for power forward Carlos Boozer—leaving Boston with a revamped lineup of Garnett, Boozer, Pierce, Butler and Rondo. The idea died when the Wizards moved Butler to the Mavericks instead, but it's an example of Ainge's willingness to consider anything. The speculation grew so hot that Ainge invited Allen and his wife to his office to explain how Allen might indeed be dealt if his expiring $18.8 million salary could land a younger star.
Ainge had the same kind of heart-to-heart with Rondo in the preseason, after he was mentioned in trade rumors last summer. "If there was an opportunity for me to get traded and they would have had better guys come in, I'm sure they would have made the deal," says Rondo, who was coming off a breakout year of 11.9 points and 8.2 assists per game yet was on the books at an affordable $2.1 million. "It wasn't like you had to make a blockbuster trade to get me."
"He was hurt by it," said Rivers. "That's human nature. I would have been hurt too."
Though he wanted to remain in Boston, Rondo approached the season believing it could be his last with the team, as he was due to become a restricted free agent this summer. He added 13 pounds of muscle (he's up to 188 pounds) by undertaking a weightlifting regimen for the first time, and he worked on his shooting with consultant Mark Price, the former Cavs star who counseled Rondo to keep his elbow close to his body and improve his follow-through. During negotiations with the Celtics for a contract extension, Rondo and his agent, Bill Duffy, were adamant he would accept nothing less than the $11 million average salary that Spurs point guard Tony Parker is receiving on his six-year deal. "They weren't budging from what they wanted," said Ainge. "So it came down to the point: Do we want to do this or do we want to walk?"
Grousbeck pushed through the negotiations, viewing the 24-year-old Rondo as not only vital to this season but also to the Celtics' future after the Big Three are gone. Last November, Rondo got the deal he wanted, a five-year, $55 million extension that not only earned him newfound respect in the locker room (where money plays a large factor in the hierarchy among players) but also gave him peace of mind. "I definitely got to sleep at night not stressing that if I play bad, I'm not going to get a deal," he says.