Celtics-Heat Game 7: A fade from green to black

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It’s possible, however remotely, that Miami’s 101-88 win in Game 7 wasn’t the end of the Big 3 era in Boston. It’s not inconceivable that Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers could elect for one more ride. But it doesn’t feel like it. It doesn’t feel like it because of how close this team came to being blown up before the season, during the season, at the deadline. It doesn’t feel like it because of the economic realities and the difficulty in retaining said players at market rates while not squandering their window of opportunity to rebuild around legitimate, motivated talent. But mostly, it doesn’t feel that way because of the look on the Celtics’ faces in the fourth quarter of Games 6 and 7. Last year they could throw out Rondo’s injury, or the way the roster was constructed. But this year is different. This year is a  team they liked, a team they trusted, a team they believed in. And in the fourth quarter of Games 6 and 7, the truth was etched on their faces. Not The Truth, but he truth.

The Heat are just better than they are.

The belief was there, even for three quarters in Game 7. That effort and execution would trump talent. That heart and grit would trump ability. That sheer force of will was more important than strength, speed, and athleticism. But then, as these things do, the reality set in. Santa Claus is not real, there is no gold at the end of the rainbow, and the Miami Heat are a better team than the Celtics.

As much as a Game 7 can prove such things.

So now there’s a whole other world waiting for them, a summer that will deal with free agency for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, with Allen already having speculated about moving on. The Celtics wouldn’t get into the discussion of whether they will finally pull the trigger on the detonation Saturday night, it wasn’t the time. But if this is it, it’s important to note what they leave with.

An NBA championship for Boston, first and foremost, having carried the title back to Beantown when it had been absent for twenty year. Two Finals appearances, a year cut down by an injury to Kevin Garnett, and then, the Big 3 era in Miami. (The Heat have never lost a playoff series in the Big 3 era to Boston. There’s a fun small-sample stat). They brought us Ubuntu, they validated the careers of Allen, Garnett, Pierce. They made Doc Rivers into arguably the best coach in the NBA, certainly the coach most want to play for. They gave us dedication, sacrifice, intensity, and a whole lot of fouls. They resurrected the Lakers rivalry and may have been primarily responsible for “The Decision” and the formation of the Big 3. They were the superteam before there were superteams (apologies to the Spurs).

It was an amazing run.

But the truth is that it’s over.

It’s time to look to the future, to get Rondo some running mates his age (or younger). It’s time to move forward and look for the next great Celtic. It’s time to let go of the past. Because this team gave everything anyone could have asked of them, and it wasn’t enough. The time has come, and Ainge and Rivers know it. They’ve known it for a while, but they chose to believe in miracles. And for a while, this team of over-the-hill veterans made them believe. But at the end of the rope there’s an anchor. It’s time to let go.

There will be a great many questions about this Celtics team going forward and looking back. Were they truly one of the great teams of their time, or is their lone title not enough to justify the hype about them? Were they victims of fate (Garnett’s knee in 2009, Perkins’ knee in 2010) or simply flawed in trying to win with older players in an athletic age? Is Rondo the lone reason they were able to compete for so many years, or are teams unable to win a title with him as the best player? Should the Celtics have made a move sooner? What about the failed deal for David West? The questions will haunt the city and sports talk radio and are worth asking.

But beyond that is a team that deserves to be remembered not as three superstars that came together to win titles. But a team of great players who all bought in to something greater than themselves and came out with a bond greater than that of just teammates. They won together, they lost together, but they fought through everything the league, the world and fate threw at them. They fought to the bitter end. There’s no shame that the Heat were better. There’s only a pride in being another in a long line of great Celtics teams.

And for the city with the most NBA championships, a grateful hand is extended, even as the question is on their lips.

“Where do we go from here to win Banner 18?”

Watch LeBron James’ top highlight from each of his postseason appearances (video)

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LeBron James and Tony Parker are the only players to play in the last dozen postseasons.

(If you’re wondering, Manu Ginobili missed the 2009 playoffs due to an ankle injury.)

It’s fair to say LeBron was a bit more spectacular than Parker in that span. As LeBron enters his seventh straight Finals, the NBA released this awesome video showing LeBron’s best playoff highlight from each year:

There’s no entry for this year. Here’s betting it comes against the Warriors in the NBA Finals.

David Stern: We thought we could re-work Chris Paul-to-Lakers trade until Mitch Kupchak ‘panicked’

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NBA commissioner David Stern – acting as New Orleans’ owner representative, he says – infamously vetoed a potential Chris Paul-to-Lakers trade in 2011.

But that didn’t close the possibility of Paul going to the Lakers.

The New Orleans Hornets (now the Pelicans and not be confused with the current Charlotte Hornets), Lakers and Rockets tried to rework the three-team trade that would’ve sent Paul to the Lakers, Pau Gasol to Houston and Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic and a first-round pick to New Orleans. But talks fell apart around the time the Lakers dealt Odom to the Mavericks.

Stern on Nunyo & Company (hat tip: Harrison Feigen of Silver Screen & Roll):

In fact, in the course of the weekend, we thought we could re-do the deal. We really thought that Houston would be ready to part with Kevin Lowry, and we had a trade lined up for Odom that would have gotten us a good first-round draft pick – not we, but my basketball folks. But Mitch Kupchak at the time panicked and moved Odom to Dallas. So the piece wasn’t even there for us to play with at the time. So that was it — just about what was good for the then-New Orleans Hornets.

Remember, Stern – roundly criticized for his handling of this episode* – has blamed the Lakers and Rockets for the lingering perception. This could just be him again trying to shift responsibility.

*Somewhat fairly, somewhat not. Owners veto general manager-approved trades often enough, and Stern was acting as New Orleans’ owner after George Shinn sold the franchise back to the league. But Stern had an agenda as commissioner. He never should have assumed such a large conflict of interest. What he did with the Paul trade was reasonable for an acting owner, but because Stern was also commissioner, it’s fair to question how much New Orleans’ interests and how much the league’s interests factored into the decision-making.

But let’s take Stern at his word – that he and the Hornets thought they could re-do the trade and send Paul to the Lakers. That doesn’t mean they were right. Maybe the Lakers and Rockets (who had Kyle Lowry, not the “Kevin Lowry” Stern named) were never going to part with enough to get Stern’s approval.

And maybe New Orleans didn’t properly convey its interest in still completing a deal. Perhaps, Kupchak acted reasonably by trading Odom to Dallas – for a first-round pick, a deal Mark Cuban would ultimately regret – rather than wait around for the Hornets, who eventually sent Paul to the Clippers.

It’s easy to blame Kupchak, but he might tell a different story.

Isaiah Thomas makes it clear he wants to stay in Boston

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It’s been a long time since there was so much discussion about whether a team needs to trade or just let go of an All-NBA and All-Star player at his peak who is clear and away a fan favorite.

Yet that’s where the Boston Celtics and Isaiah Thomas find themselves. After landing the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft — where they will almost certainly take point guard Markelle Fultz — and with the Celtics looking a full couple steps behind the Cavaliers in the playoffs, the question about whether Thomas is part of the future in Boston has come up. He is a free agent in 2018 and are the Celtics willing to pay the big money it will take to keep him?

Know this, Thomas wants to remain a Celtic and win a Celtic. You can listen to his full comments above, but Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe has the money quote:

Outside of chasing Gordon Hayward, this summer the Celtics are going to focus on getter some frontcourt help, someone to help with rebounding and rim protection. They will look to get better, but Danny Ainge isn’t going to push all his chips into the middle of the table to make a gambit on immediate massive improvement. He will remain patient, building this team so that in three years and five years they will be a force in the East.

And the Thomas discussion likely gets put on hold for a year (unless there is a change of course and contract extension talks come up, but that’s only if Boston misses on Hayward and any other big targets).

Stephen Curry says talk of lack of competitive balance “disrespectful” to Warriors, Cavaliers

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This year’s NBA playoffs have been horribly lopsided and they lacked drama because we all knew where it was headed: Golden State vs. Cleveland. They were so dominant that between them they lost one playoff game so far. This has brought up discussions of competitive balance — we have seen the same Finals three years in a row, and we will almost certainly head into next season expecting a fourth. Then maybe a fifth.

Not surprisingly, Stephen Curry isn’t a fan of the lack of competition argument, saying it disrespects the Warriors and the Cavaliers.

“That almost is kind of disrespectful, because it’s not like it’s easy for us to get here. It wasn’t that at all. Us and Cleveland worked our butts off all year to put ourselves in a position to be playing for a championship. The league is as strong talent-wise across the board as it’s ever been. Every night we get challenged. Obviously, we had that one stat I guess, point differential, all year. We had a pretty solid showing in that respect. But, every night was hard. Every night was challenging. You can’t just sleepwalk through a season and sleep walk through the playoffs and expect to be here. You got to do something. You got to come out every night and prove yourself. Granted, anybody who was betting on who was gonna be in the Finals probably picked those two. It’s easy for them to say that and just wake up in June and see it happen. We had to put that work in all year long to make it happen.”

Curry is right in that nobody should question the work the Warriors and Cavaliers put in to get to this point, and that the other teams did not just roll over for them. Also, both teams did get a little lucky with injuries.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that right now there is a dominant team in each conference, and that sucks the drama out of the postseason. (Maybe a healthy San Antonio team could have pushed the Warriors, we didn’t get to find out.) Golden State has four of the top 15-20 players in the NBA, and that makes them a juggernaut — again, regardless of the work put in. Other teams don’t have much of a chance if the Warriors are healthy and focused, not in a seven game series. The fact that it was flukey circumstances that put a dominant team in each conference — there isn’t another LeBron James returning home, and out West it took a one-time salary cap spike to add Kevin Durant to a 73-win team — doesn’t change the fact this season has felt like a foregone conclusion from the start.

Right now we’ve got what we wanted and expected, the trilogy between the Warriors and Cavaliers. But if we head into next season expecting (and maybe getting) round four of this matchup in the Finals, is that good for the league? Why watch the movie if you know how it ends before it starts?