For years, the sentiment among fans and media has been that the end of the Big Three era in Boston is approaching fast, with supporters and detesters alike clamoring that the Celtics are too old and slow and behind the times to keep getting it done at basketball’s highest level.
Through it all, though — and to the surprise of most — the Celtics have persevered, with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen teaming up with Rajon Rondo to thumb their noses at expectations and emerge, time and again, as a viable contender for the NBA throne.
But Saturday, the latest era of Celtics dominance could all come to an end, and this time it would be for real.
A loss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers could mark far more than just the end of another season for this legendary Boston unit. It could also — finally — be the last time the Big Three take the TD Garden’s parquet floor together.
"We realized that from Day 1 (of) training camp," Pierce, a 34-year-old swingman, told reporters in Philadelphia last week, addressing the sense of finality that has been tethered to this season from the very beginning. "I think pretty much the last couple of years we’ve been feeling like that."
The respective futures of Pierce and fellow mainstays Garnett and Allen are all still cloudy, but it seems apparent that some or all of them will be playing elsewhere next season.
Allen has been slowed by bone spurs in his ankle throughout the playoffs, reducing him to a shell of his former self as he has averaged just 9.8 points on 42.5 percent shooting, 26.7 percent three-point shooting and 60 percent from the free-throw line. He turns 37 this summer and will be a free agent at season’s end, and it’s difficult to see Boston recommitting to their celebrated, but hobbled and recently ineffective, sharpshooter going forward.
As for Boston’s 36-year-old big man, Garnett has been indispensable so far in these playoffs for the Celtics, who might already be at home debating their future had it not been for the former MVP’s multiple throwback performances — most notably, his 28-point, 14-rebound work in Game 6 against Atlanta and his dominant efforts in Games 1 and 3 against Philadelphia, when he combined for 56 points on 64.9 percent shooting and 24 rebounds.
But even a team’s lifeblood has a shelf life, and there’s a very real chance the free-agent-to-be Garnett, the man who has come to personify Celtics basketball the past five years, could be playing his final game in a Boston jersey — or, according to some, even his final game.
Then there’s Pierce and 26-year-old point guard Rondo. Both are under contract for the next two years, with Rondo signed on for another year after that, but both were also reportedly discussed as trade pieces around the March deadline, and there’s no telling what their fate might be, depending on how committed general manager Danny Ainge really is to blowing this whole thing up.
In the end, much of what becomes of the Celtics roster will depend upon what happens Saturday. While a loss should essentially amount to a final nail in the Big Three’s coffin, a victory over the No. 8 Sixers could change everything. The Celtics are 3-2 in Game 7s in the Big Three era, and the result of their sixth win-or-go-home game as a unit could go a long way toward clearing up this whole situation.
A win would match Boston against Miami in the Eastern Conference finals, starting Monday, and perhaps a respectable showing against the still-Chris Bosh-less Heat — or better yet, a win and a third NBA Finals appearance in five years — would be enough to sell Ainge on yet another year or two with this group.
"The influence is to try and win another championship, regardless of whether this is going to be our last time together," Pierce said. "We don’t know what the future is going to hold for all of us, with KG in the last year of his contract, Ray in the last year of his contract. Trade speculations have been going on, there’s talk about rebuilding, so there is a sense of urgency with us."
Throughout the playoffs, the Celtics have validated Ainge’s decision to not start the rebuilding process at the trade deadline. But sentimentality can’t play a factor in piecing together the Celtics’ future come summer, and it won’t, because Boston has been here before.
After the similar departures of aging stars Larry Bird (who was 35 years old when he called it quits in 1992), Kevin McHale (35 when he retired in 1993) and Robert Parish (40 when he played his final game with Boston in 1994), the Celtics spent nearly a decade mired in futility.
The franchise can’t afford to have that happen again, so this season might end up being the Big Three’s swan song regardless of when or how it ends.
But if nothing else, a Celtics win Saturday would put all the talk of their imminent breakup on hold — at least for another week. And after years of delaying the seemingly inevitable, that’s probably the best the Big Three can ask.