The Eastern Conference finals began on Sunday night and the Celtics were nowhere to be found. Follow the breadcrumb path that was started around February's All-Star break and you'll see exactly why.
First, a primer: The Celtics did not lose to the Miami Heat in five games in the Eastern Conference semis because they traded Kendrick Perkins less than a week after four of them, plus their entire coaching staff, graced the Staples Center floor as representatives of the East squad in the All-Star Game. It's more than conceivable that the C's would have lost anyway, especially given the otherworldly play of Dwyane Wade and all of the clutch playmaking provided LeBron James. But the trade certainly didn't help them. Or make them better.
Maybe it will down the road, though at this point, given the way age and wear and tear knocked Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to the mat down the stretch of the Heat series, that possibility is highly debatable. The bottom line is that this, the 2010-2011 season, was the C's last, best chance to win another championship for a while. And they were well on their way to doing it. Until they weren't.
At the time of the Perk trade, the C's were cruising at 41-14, the best record in the East. Perk was getting healthier after his off-season knee surgery, Rajon Rondo was enjoying the best season of his career and the stars were aligned for the C's to be able to continue playing at a high level while limiting the minutes of their Big Three to close out the regular season. A slight roster tweak here or there seemed likely, especially given the roster moves of the previous three seasons (P.J. Brown, Stephon Marbury, Michael Finley, etc.) and a No. 1 seed and home court advantage were more than realistic possibilities. It stands to reason that no one could have predicted what would happen next, or subsequently.
Perk was traded. Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic arrived from Oklahoma City. Rondo lost his best friend. Garnett suddenly didn't have his top complement on defense, and thus had to expend more effort and energy on that end of the floor, not exactly an ideal circumstance for a soon-to-be 35-year old with the amount of mileage on KG's odometer. Green, who is young, talented and possibly a good player in the future, was an unmitigated disaster, showing occasional flashes but mostly looking passive, scared, overmatched, overwhelmed and at times, even incompetent.
The Celts, who also were forced to integrate several other spare parts while foolishly waiting for 86-year old Shaquille O'Neal to magically heal from all his nagging injuries and then ride in on a towering steed to save them, cracked at the seams. They went 15-12 the rest of the way, losing to one playoff team after another along the way, whether at home or on the road. They lost home court advantage, dropped to the third seed in the conference and ... well, we all know what happened after that.
There was some good news in the aftermath of the loss to the hated Heat. Coach Doc Rivers signed up for five more years, which given his temperament and standing around these parts, should make the inevitable rebuilding process that's coming soon more bearable. Rondo's gruesome elbow injury suffered in Game 3 against Miami hindered him in the following two games to be sure, but won't require surgery. And Rivers finally said what every self-respecting, non-company man Celts fan had known for weeks, telling WEEI on Monday morning that the timing of the Perk trade was lousy, that it created too many issues and that if he had it to do all over again, "I would wait until after the year was over, I'll put it that way."
Going forward, with a lockout looming and threatening to put the NBA on ice for a while, a possible shortened season may aid the aging C's. Green will have more time to get properly acclimated. Plans can be made to lessen the load on the Big Three so that if another playoff run is in the cards, they won't be as gassed as they were against the Heat. Glen Davis's contract is up and if the Celts are smart, they will let Big Baby, once a wonderful, surprising source of good vibes for the team but is now a headcase who has worn out his welcome, walk. And the chance to end the ill-fated Shaq experiment before letting it hold the team hostage any longer is at hand.
Celts GM Danny Ainge was quoted in the aftermath of the series as saying, "Father Time always wins." It's true. But losing those battles can be put off, if the right kind measures are taken. Ainge probably knows that now. Celtics fans probably wish he knew that at the trade deadline.