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Celtics' Big Three nearly split at trade deadline

NEW YORK – As the NBA trade deadline lurched into its final hour a month ago, league sources say the call Ray Allen long feared had come: Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers was on the line, telling him he had been traded. Allen had been sent to the Memphis Grizzlies for a package including O.J. Mayo and a draft pick, and the Celtics' Big Three had come to a most brusque ending.

For 20 minutes or so, Allen had to process the information. They traded me to Memphis? And yet, as the disappointment dissolved to anger, Rivers returned with a messenger’s nightmare: Never mind. The deal fell apart. Take a deep breath and let’s go back to work again.

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Ray Allen was nearly traded to the Grizzlies for O.J. Mayo. (Getty Images)

Before the Big Three could make it past the trade deadline, Allen-to-the-Grizzlies had to fall apart and discussions on a deal that would have sent Paul Pierce to the New Jersey Nets for an expiring Mehmet Okur contract and a lottery pick never reached completion, league sources said. Celtics general manager Danny Ainge loves the talent in the 2012 NBA draft, but he still gets one more run, one more chance with this group in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

This had been a wild night at the Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, the New York Knicks unloading a Carmelo Anthony masterpiece – 35 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists – with a devastating barrage of 3-pointers for a 118-110 victory. Nevertheless, the Celtics are still close to clinching the Atlantic Division title and still promise to be a tough out in the playoffs.

“I think we’ve become a really good basketball team over the course of the year,” Rivers said Tuesday night. “It’s just taken some time.”

[ Related: Chicago Bulls' Derrick Rose says Michael Jordan's titles 'drive me' ]

Allen still couldn’t return Tuesday night with that sore ankle, but he’ll be back soon. He isn’t thrilled with the sixth-man role behind emerging young guard Avery Bradley, sources said, but will be a pro. He got over the Grizzlies trade and he’ll deal with this demotion as long as it lasts. There are vulnerabilities in the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls, and Rajon Rondo, Pierce and Kevin Garnett are playing too well to be discounted.

“Miami and Chicago are the favorites, but I like us,” Rivers said.

The Celtics always wondered what would’ve happened had Rondo stayed healthy, had they been able to exert pressure on the Heat. Miami is still the best team in the Eastern Conference, especially with the relentless injuries to Derrick Rose in Chicago this season. The Bulls have needed much more consistent scoring out of Richard Hamilton, and far less telling everyone in the locker room what they need to do to be champions. Several sources say it grated on some Bulls since Hamilton's arrival in December, but eventually subsided.

The Bulls will have the best record in the East, and Tom Thibodeau will still sell that locker room as underdogs. He’ll win the Coach of the Year again, and he’ll bring something of a personal ferocity into the playoffs. He isn’t happy the Bulls haven’t addressed a contract extension and his relationship with GM Gar Forman remains tepid, sources said.

In the end, Rose has had one pestering injury after another, and privately the Bulls pray he can stay healthy for the playoffs. They can’t win without his greatness. In the regular season, the Bulls survived 25 games without Rose, because they play so hard every night, so well defensively. That’s a testament to Thibodeau, but it’s an edge that gets negated in the postseason.

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The Celtics have superb survival instincts, muscle memory when times are toughest. Ainge had been ripped for drafting Bradley out of Texas two years ago, but people needed to have patience with him. He was a teenager, one year out of high school. Suddenly, now everyone can see how talented he is, how vital he’ll be in the postseason. Yes, Allen would love to get his starting job back, but Bradley has made a stunning case for himself.

For the Knicks, this was a terrific victory, a chance for Anthony to make a triple-double case for his maturing game. The Knicks are a problem for everyone with Anthony playing so well, with Amar’e Stoudemire on his way back to the lineup later in the week. Linsanity came and went for the Knicks, and it strangely feels like little more than a mirage now.

“It took a lot to beat these guys,” Anthony said.

It always does and always will as long as the Celtics are together. They’re a tough out, and that never changes. Soon, Allen will be back, and that’s an opportunity he thought he'd lost back in mid-March. For a few disconcerting minutes, Allen was gone, Pierce was on the brink of a deal and these Celtics were on the cusp of fading into a historical footnote. Yet, one deal fell apart, one never came together. Here come these Boston Celtics one final time in the Eastern Conference, one more run for old time's sake.

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