It ended as it has for so many greats. With a bitter taste in their mouths and their enemies leaping into stands and each other’s arms, and that long lonely walk off the floor without so much as a handshake.
The Boston Celtics had just been beaten Wednesday night, ousted not just from these playoffs but also from the top of the Eastern Conference they’d dominated the past three years.
“It’s never going to be easy,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward. “The championship DNA that they’ve earned for four years …”
It ends, Erik, easy or otherwise. Sooner or later, championship DNA or not, it ends for everyone.
Just three days earlier, it was the Lakers’ mini-dynasty dying. And never mind forgotten handshakes. There was Lamar Odom being ejected late in the game for a flagrant foul on Dirk Nowitzki, followed by Andrew Bynum slamming a forearm into airborne J.J. Barea, earning a $25,000 fine and a five-game suspension next season.
Always, eventually, the old must make way for the new. And when they do, it’s often without grace. It’s usually with the same fiery resilience and need to win that made them great in the first place.
When the Chicago Bulls overthrew the two-time champion Detroit Pistons by sweeping them in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals, there were no handshakes. Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and their teammates walked off the court with four seconds left.
And in 1988, after the Pistons defeated the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals to put an end to that era, Larry Bird and most of his teammates did the same. As did, led by Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, most of Boston’s players Wednesday night.
Teams, great teams, know when they are not just beaten but finished. When the past is no longer prologue. When the days of glory are gone.
So goodbye, Boston Celtics as we knew you. So long, Lakers as you were. Enjoy whatever comes next. Both of you knew. Both of you acted the way you did because you hadn’t just lost a series; you’d lost what had been your time.
Hello, Chicago, Oklahoma City and Miami. Hello, perhaps, teams like Memphis, New York and Portland. Hello to the future.
“If we could have went through this playoff series without playing Boston at any point, it wouldn’t have been right,” Dwyane Wade said.
Because all comers want to beat whomever stands at the top. The next great thing longs to beat the current great thing – to pound them into the past.
Aspiring politicians crave unseating incumbents. For centuries, warriors measured their strength by the ability to unseat formidable and worthy adversaries not known for losing. Boxers seize title belts by beating the person who holds it. Business adversaries often want not just to make money, but to drive out of business – to destroy – the competition.
So the Celtics had to go at the hands of the Heat.
Since Boston’s Big Three came together in 2007, with a shorter window appointed to them than the revamped Miami version, they dominated the East: A championship in 2008. A real chance in 2009 until Kevin Garnett’s knee gave out. A loss in Game 7 of last year’s Finals against the Lakers despite being up 13 points in the fourth quarter.
Doc Rivers said Wednesday he’ll likely return, and that may speak to Boston trying, almost certainly in vain, to recapture what’s behind it.
Rivers – who Wednesday was as classy as one can be in defeat – also addressed the notion Boston was washed up. Despite not having been asked that question.
“I will say this," Rivers said. "I don’t believe this team is done. After listening to (talk of) the Lakers being broken up after they lost, I’m sure, what the hell, we’re all done. We have to add some people. But other than that I love the guys in that locker room."
When Doc Rivers, unsolicited, talks sarcastically about the feeling the Lakers and his Celtics are done – well, hell, they’re probably done.
For his part, Phil Jackson has announced he will not return, and that likely speaks to the obvious out West. The Lakers era that produced three straight Finals appearances and two consecutive championships is at an end.
There may be trades – talk of trying to ship key parts for someone like Dwight Howard is already making the rounds – to remake Los Angeles.
Or next year we may see the same kind of broken-down team that got swept by Dallas looking to will its way through one last year.
That didn’t work for the Celtics in the late-’80s. It didn’t work for the Pistons to start the ’90s. It won’t work for the Lakers and Celtics as this decade of NBA play unfolds.
After facing the Lakers in the 1987 Finals and then being knocked around and out by the Pistons in 1988, the Celtics’ Big Three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish started to fade.
Bird retired in 1992; McHale in 1993; Parish changed teams in 1994.
Starting in 1994, Boston had three winning seasons over the next 14 years. The Lakers’ stint in the wilderness lasted less time. By 2000, a young Kobe Bryant and a still formidable Shaquille O’Neal were about to reboot L.A.’s dominance.
Kobe and the Lakers won five championships in 11 years and suffered only one losing season in that span. It was a run for the record books. When the Celtics acquired Garnett and Ray Allen and met the Lakers in the Finals twice in three years, it was like the ’60s and ’80s all over again. A new Boston-L.A. era. One of sports’ greatest rivalries renewed.
But that’s over now. The current Celtics and Lakers teams are now part of the past. In the days ahead, we will glimpse the future.
With the Chicago Bulls finishing off the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday, the Eastern Conference finals now boast the two teams who will fight over the East in the years to come. Game 1 between the Heat and Bulls is Sunday.
Out West, Dallas still has life left, and the Mavericks are likely to face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals.
These are among the teams fighting to take the places Boston and Los Angeles have left behind.
The future of the league looks a lot like this now: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook.
Not so much Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce or Tim Duncan. Not anymore.
The old always makes way for the new.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to find out who will stake a claim to the place in the NBA the Celtics and Lakers used to occupy.