BOSTON – Kevin Garnett changed Doc Rivers' life, changed forever the way people will remember him as a basketball coach. Rivers is a champion now, a paragon of his profession and there's never been a day on the job he hasn't understood that Garnett made it possible. This is the reason the tears welled within his eyes beneath that 17th championship banner in the Garden on Friday night, the reason that he squeezed Garnett on the sideline in the final seconds.
Deep down, Doc Rivers and Kevin Garnett understood this was goodbye.
Deep down, they know it is over.
"I love you," Rivers told Garnett.
"I love you," Garnett told Rivers.
Garnett had gone out the way that he had come into these Boston Celtics: Full of bravado, brilliance and pride. Always, pride. They had made the wildest of comebacks in this best-of-seven series with the New York Knicks, punctuated with the most stunning fourth quarter run in franchise playoff history, 20 consecutive points and the earth moving beneath them in the final moments of Game 6, the end of an era.
"He's as tough of a guy, a competitor, I've ever been around," Rivers said. "I just didn't want him to go out that way."
This was the last gasp of a flailing champion, the Celtics' death rattle. They had fallen too far behind the Knicks in this series, and much too far in Game 6, which ended in an 88-80 defeat. The Knicks move on to play the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and they go fortified for surviving the lessons that these Celtics reinforced within them.
The Celtics did the Knicks a monumental favor in this series. Across six games, Garnett and Boston challenged New York in every possible way. They taught them lessons on hubris and toughness, on resilience and poise. The Atlantic Division belongs to the Knicks now, but most of all, they take the mantle of trying to usurp the Miami Heat.
Boston needs to retool again, and Garnett could make it easy for them with retirement. He has two years and $23.5 million left on a deal that includes a no-trade clause. A year ago, Rivers was certain Garnett would keep going. This time, "I'm not so positive," Rivers said.
Boston can buy out the final year on Paul Pierce's contract for $5 million – or pay him $15 million to play the season. Or trade him, and let someone else do it. The Celtics will work hard to move him in a package deal that includes a young player or a draft pick. Once Pierce goes, they know Garnett's decision will be easy.
"One of the big reasons I came here was because of Paul," Garnett said. "I demand a lot out of myself, both physically and from a skill level. I'll be lying if I said Paul didn't play into that."
Before the trade in the summer of 2007, Garnett had never imagined himself as a Celtics star. This wasn't a franchise nor Boston a city for him. And then, he walked into the Garden with Pierce and Ray Allen and somehow nothing had ever felt so right, fit so perfectly. They won the NBA championship in 2008, made it to Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals and had the Miami Heat within a whisper of elimination in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals.
LeBron James has been the best player in the Eastern Conference these past several years, but Garnett has been the most admired. He's the leader of leaders, the Ray Lewis of the NBA.
"He changed our whole way," Rivers said. "I can preach it all day, but when you've got a guy walking the walk, the franchise changes. Every new guy who came in here – even Shaq – had to change a little around Kevin.
"He's different than any star I've ever been around. He's built differently. I hope we have a lot more of them around the league."
Garnett turns 37 years old this month, and this has been a remarkable six-year run. There are no promises in professional sports. They've always marveled over the way Garnett wanted to be coached every day, the way he worked and taught and treated every practice, every game, as a precious opportunity.
"I didn't know how long this would go, but I also knew that you don't take it for granted," Rivers told Yahoo! Sports on his walk back to his office late Friday. "Look at Oklahoma City right now. I'm sure last year that they just assumed they would be back. And then an injury, and well, that's what happens."
Four years ago, Boston lost Garnett to an injury. Three years ago, it was Kendrick Perkins. Last season, it was Jeff Green. This time, it was Rajon Rondo. After that championship season, Boston never made it to the end without losing an important player to a significant injury. That's how it goes for the Celtics, for everyone else in the NBA too.
In the quiet of the losing locker room, Rivers gathered Garnett and Pierce and told them that they would talk privately sometime soon. The sorrow of the night hung too heavily. Around the NBA, there's belief that the arrival of Flip Saunders as general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves will start the process of Garnett's old coach and franchise eventually offering KG the opportunity to invest in the franchise.
For three years, there's been uncertainty about the Celtics' direction. General manager Danny Ainge pushed hard for deals involving Garnett and Pierce at the February trade deadline, but nothing materialized. This time, Rivers knew the ending was different, that the likelihood of this coach and his core returning together is dim.
"There's more doubt with everything," Rivers told Yahoo! Sports. "We don't know what we're doing, but also we don't know what [Garnett's] doing. It's different this year, there's no doubt about that."
And when it was over on the floor on Friday night, and Rivers substituted for Garnett in the final seconds, the Celtics' star stopped to ask his coach a question: "You all right, Doc?" This made it worse for Rivers, and truth be told, made it the most Garnett moment ever.
Rivers turned to his assistant coaches, shook his head and told them, "Typical Kevin."
"He's walking off the court, playing 41 minutes, exhausted and he was checking on me, to see how I was. … That's Kevin Garnett."
And on his way out of the Garden, out of these playoffs and a season and maybe a magnificent modern era of these Boston Celtics, Doc Rivers' heart was broken. Something ended here on Friday night, something that changed a coach – changed them all – forever.
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