Don't say you weren't warned.
It was just about a week ago that many fans of the Boston Celtics had already penciled the team into at least the Eastern Conference Finals, if not beyond. The six game series win over Atlanta gave way to the mouth watering prospect of a second round match-up against a hobbled Chicago Bulls team missing its two best players or the eighth seeded Philadelphia 76ers who snuck into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth despite struggling down the stretch.
Once the Sixers vanquished the Bulls and moved on to the second round, C's fans dismissed the young Sixers as nothing more than a minor speedbump en route to an epic collision with the LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the East Finals. Six games later, the high flying group of youngsters from Philadelphia have stood toe to toe with their more celebrated opponents and are in position to deliver the final knockout blow to the "New Big Three" era of Boston Celtics basketball.
At the conclusion of this season, be it Saturday's Game 7 (8:00pm, ABC) or some other time down the road, many of the core members of this team are expected to move on to either other teams or other life endeavors. Ray Allen will be a free agent and has been outspoken about his disappointment in being relegated to the bench in favor of the up and coming Avery Bradley. Allen, the league's all time leading three point shooter, will likely finish his career in another uniform as he tries to win one last championship before hanging it up.
Kevin Garnett is also a free agent after this season, but has been far less forthcoming when the subject of his future is brought up. There are days when he's hinted that this might be the last season of his illustrious career and others where he sounds like he'd like to latch on with another contender and play until he simply can't anymore.
Similarly, Paul Pierce has given conflicting information about what his future may hold. The Captain is under contract for two more seasons and will earn over $32 million during that time, so it's difficult to imagine him walking away from that much guaranteed cash. On the other hand, it's also difficult to envision him wanting to spend the remaining two years (or more) of his career on a team that will be in the rebuilding phase that he's been a part of most of his career.
Regardless of what happens on Saturday, the New Big Three era will almost surely come to an end at the end of this season, and that leads one to thinking about the legacy that these men will leave behind as the franchise begins to fully transition to the "Rajon Rondo era".
A number of pundits and fans have stated that the experiment of bringing together three veteran superstars onto the same team was something of a disappointment. The logic generally used to justify that point of view is in the simple measurement of championship trophies. In five seasons together, this group of Celtics will have managed only one title in two Finals appearances, while arguably not even being the best team during that time span (begrudgingly, that title probably goes to the Lakers who won two titles in three tries). In my opinion though, the measurement of success or disappointment has to go beyond the measure of championships won.
For Celtics fans under the age of 30, all they had for memories were stories about the Larry Bird led teams from the 80's. From the old Boston Garden crowd turning Ralph Sampson into a puddle of nothing in Game Six of the 1981 Finals to Bird calling his team a bunch of sissies after Game 3 of the '84 Finals winning the title and the magical '86 title team, these were just stories that fans heard from their fathers, uncles, cousins, older brothers, etc. They CRAVED memories of their own, and the best they had was that infamous rally in the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals where a mediocre, though entertaining group of Celtics erased a 21 point fourth quarter deficit against the New Jersey Nets in which the new Garden (then known as the FleetCenter) literally shook from the roar of the crowd.
Now though, the new breed of younger Celtics fans have their own memories to pass on to their kids and older fans can reminisce about recent history rather than reliving the 80's via grainy footage on NBA TV. Some of the highlights include: Game 7 against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2008 where Paul Pierce and LeBron James went shot for shot for four quarters as the Celtics ousted the defending Eastern Conference Champions, the complete and total annihilation of the Lakers in Game 6 of the 2008 Finals and the incredible celebration that followed, the wild, overtime filled seven-game series against the Chicago Bulls in 2009, the unlikely run to the 2010 Finals (and yes, even the heartbreaking Game 7), Allen breaking Reggie Miller's record for three pointers made and countless others.
After being an NBA doormat for the bulk of the 15 years prior, the trio of KG, Allen, and Pierce made it fun and cool to be a Celtics fan again and that's a great thing for a franchise that had little cache with casual NBA fans. Now the team is once again a powerhouse that drives ratings, moves merchandise, and is one of the most valuable NBA franchises.
In addition, a franchise that had trouble luring quality free agents because of the stigma attached to it among kids who weren't even alive the last time the C's were championship contenders now has something to sell to the up and coming players of today. They've got a wildly popular and successful head coach, a front office and ownership group committed to winning, and now some recent results to back up that commitment. The hope is that the Celtics being ingrained in popular NBA culture again will help make the team competitive for the long haul, not unlike their West Coast rivals.
Whether the season ends Saturday night or after Miami runs them over like roadkill on the highway, a new era of Celtics basketball will begin in November. However, a new generation of passionate fans have been bred, the Celtic brand is stronger than at any point in the last 20+ years, a championship was won, records were broken, and no matter how or when this season ends, despite a lack of multiple titles, these last five years have been a smashing success.