Champions don't give up easily, if at all, but with 28.3 seconds left in Saturday night's Game 7 against the Miami Heat, Doc Rivers decided to waive the white flag. It was clear by that point: the Heat had done it. Miami won the war, and the Boston Celtics' gritty, magical and improbable run had finally ended.
Rivers put in the subs, and called the three greatest warriors of this generation of Celtics basketball to the bench. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen all sat down, with Rivers sharing what appeared to be an emotional embrace with Garnett, who was the last to come off the court, wearing a look of total disbelief.
The seconds ticked off the clock. Then, the triple zeros hit, and just like that, it was done. All over.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh celebrated their 101-88 win, sending them to the NBA Finals for the second consecutive season, this time to face the Oklahoma City Thunder.
On the other bench, the story was, of course, quite different. Some guys ducked out early, like Garnett and Rajon Rondo. Others, like Pierce, Allen and Rivers, stuck around for the postgame handshakes. Embraces were had, with Pierce and James linking up. All were clearly defeated.
Immediately, the recurring thought that every Celtics fan had been trying to push off ever since the start reared its ugly head again. Was this the last time we'd be seeing the Big Three together?
It certainly looked, tasted and smelled like a goodbye. Rivers emotionally embracing Garnett, then choked up at his postgame press conference and patted Rondo on the back. Allen was very somber, definitely choked up, in his presser. Garnett didn't even stick around to talk to the media.
Right then, all we had were questions, ones that reporters tried to seek answers for only mere moments after the Celtics' traumatic loss. Would this be it for the Big Three? How would you define the legacy of the Big Three? So many questions, so many emotions, so little time to react.
Being the complete class acts that they are, the Celtics fought back emotions and shared what insight they could. Rivers talked about how proud he was of his team, Allen talked about the privilege of playing for the Celtics, and Pierce expressed how much this era meant to his career.
Of course, none gave a definitive answer about their futures. Nor were they expected to, really. Everyone always says that the worst thing you can do is make an emotional decision, and the gritty veterans weren't about to do that then. However, they did offer a glimpse of their hopes.
Pierce said he would love to finish his career with Garnett and Allen said he has plenty of basketball left in him. Rivers, who signed a five-year contract extension at the end of last season, isn't expected to be going anywhere. As for Garnett, well, no one really knows right now.
They all may have a future in the NBA, but the big question is, will it be a shared one? Certainly, that is the biggest question that Danny Ainge, Doc and the Celtics front office will be wrestling with this offseason. Pierce and Garnett are tremendously loyal, and Allen has obviously enjoyed this run, despite rumors that he may be targeting New York or, gasp, Miami as possible destinations.
Is it worth it to try to bring them all back? Ainge will have to spend many days and weeks mulling over the notion, as the future of the Celtics franchise depends on it (so does his job). Much of that decision will be based on what's available via free agency or in the draft. This year's draft class has been touted as one of the deepest in years, but the same can't be said for this summer's bunch of free agents, with the group widely considered a weak one. So many questions, Danny.
Ainge will have time to make his decision, and he'll see what he can get out of the NBA Draft, which takes place on June 28. Garnett and Allen will need time to make up their minds, too. At least, we think. That plays into the Celtics' corner as they try to decide the best course to take.
This may be the nostalgia talking, but given the circumstances -- with the Celtics having cap space, Garnett and Allen likely not seeking long-term deals and the poor free agent class -- it may be best to bring the Big Three back for one more run. If there were impact free agents available, it would be a different story, but there aren't. Boston's best move may be to bring them back, pick up valuable future assets in the draft and try to add some decent role players on the open market.
At the same time, it is unrealistic to expect the Big Three to be able to do what they did this postseason for a second straight year. Ainge knows that very well, considering he reportedly tried to blow it up at the trade deadline break anyway, and at the end of the day, he has to make the moves that are best for this proud franchise's future. It's a very tough call. Not a job I envy.
If this was the end of the era, though, I'm sure I'm not alone in saying the following. Wow, and thank you. What the Big Three did for basketball in Boston was enormous. A team that had toiled in mediocrity since its last proud stand in 1986 was rejuvenated when Garnett and Allen joined forces with Pierce and did the most meaningful thing they could do: win a championship. They nearly won another in 2010, and came five wins away from doing so this year. Very impressive.
So if this really is it, guys, thank you. Thanks for everything. You truly represented everything that's great about basketball and defined what it means to be a Celtic. Your legends will forever live on in our hearts and we'll always love you. You're Celtics for life. God speed, Big Three.