BOSTON – The clock on the wall read 11:15 p.m. on Monday, and the forever unbeaten championship core of the Boston Celtics surrounded Kendrick Perkins in the training room. Paul Pierce. Rajon Rondo. Ray Allen. Together, they had never lost a playoff series, but those days were memories now. Slumped on the floor, Perkins listened to Pierce and Rondo talk, and it had to feel like he'd never left here. For a few fleeting moments, Perkins had walked out of the Oklahoma City locker room, across the hall and back into the best times of his life.
It won't be long until these Celtics are so jealous of him: a young player on the championship-contending Thunder, a team on its rise crossing with these Celtics on a steep decline. They gave Perkins a video montage, a long, loud standing ovation, and it moved him deeply. He had come to these Celtics a raw, overweight teenager and left a pro's pro.
"I was confused," Perkins said. "…Mentally, I was just out of it. I didn't know whether to shoot the ball, pass the ball, hug the guy. I ain't know what to do."
Nevertheless, Perkins finally left the Garden nostalgic for his Celtics past, but far surer of his Thunder future. Oklahoma City is a championship contender constructed for the long run, and he's the muscle to support the most dynamic young tandem in the sport: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They pounded Boston 97-88, and uncertainty now hangs over the Celtics like a guillotine.
As Kevin Garnett and Allen become free agents this summer, money will peel away from the salary cap. Between then and now, the bigger question promises to be: Does ownership and general manager Danny Ainge go for the complete rebuild and trade Pierce before the March 15 deadline? Several contending teams have inquired about Pierce's availability. As one Eastern Conference official said, there are "lots of calls asking if [Boston] will blow it up."
For Celtics ownership and Ainge, this moment of truth could be coming sooner than later. The Celtics have lost five straight games, dropping to 4-8. They're still trying to see how much blame for this sluggish start belongs to the lockout, the schedule or advancing age. Ainge has always insisted he'll never make the mistake with his Big Three that Red Auerbach made with his own in the late 1980s by staying too long with them.
Garnett and Allen come off the Celtics' cap this summer, but Pierce is the most perplexing member of the Big Three. He has two years and $32 million left on his contract through the 2013-14 season, and moving him for a shorter deal could make the Celtics a huge player in free agency the next two years. As Boston officials contend, this is the reason they didn't re-sign Perkins and Tony Allen to long-term contracts. They've been preparing for the time their core became too old, for the team's need to start over.
Still, Boston has nothing to show for Perkins. That's the hardest part for the team. After playing three months for the Celtics, Jeff Green was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm and will miss the season. Boston hoped the New Orleans Hornets' other offers for Chris Paul would fall through, and somehow they could use Rondo as part of a package. It never happened. New Orleans wasn't high on Rondo, nor has Oklahoma City ever considered the possibility of a Rondo deal for Westbrook. The Thunder have until the Jan. 25 deadline to sign Westbrook to an extension, and as one source close to the talks said, "Both sides are dug in right now."
The Thunder want to preserve salary-cap space to re-sign James Harden and Serge Ibaka. With the new "Derrick Rose rule," Westbrook could be eligible for 30 percent of the Thunder's cap starting next year – a five-year, $94 million extension – if he's selected to another All-NBA team. Oklahoma City wants to sign him for the smaller five-year, $80 million extension, because it doesn't think it can keep the team's core together with Durant and Westbrook gobbling 60 percent of the franchise's small-market payroll.
Several sources close to the talks believe the sides will find a deal somewhere between the two numbers, but there's no guarantee.
Thunder GM Sam Presti wouldn't consider a Westbrook deal for Chris Paul, so why would he entertain a Rondo deal? Westbrook's relationships with coach Scott Brooks and Durant have had their moments, but the young point guard's rapidly become a top-10 player in the NBA. Presti and assistant GM Troy Weaver drafted him fourth overall, when no one else in the league would've done that. They discovered him, raised him and they think they'll win titles with him.
Perkins has worked to keep Westbrook's temperamental tendencies on balance, the way he did with Rondo in Boston. He's been a huge influence for the Thunder, an infusion of toughness, swagger and the invaluable understanding of a winning culture.
When the Celtics traded Perkins nearly a year ago, he was with his teammates in a Denver hotel. They delivered word to him, and he couldn't leave for Oklahoma City until the morning. When the Celtics left to play the Nuggets that night, Perkins told Yahoo! Sports: "I thought about going to the game, but I was thinking that probably wasn't the right idea."
He was lost, confused and unsure which way to go. Once Perkins made it to Oklahoma City, it all became so clear to him. As much as he loved Boston, the future goes on and on with the Thunder. Here, it's over, and you could feel it under the snowy New England night.
"They're going to get better, get in shape," Perkins politely said of the Celtics. "They're going to get in the playoffs, and when they do, they're going to make noise."
This was Perkins' way of honoring the Celtics' past and his old teammates, but the truth is probably much more unkind. The Celtics sat together in the training room on Monday night, a core that had never lost a playoff series together, that never had a true chance to defend the 2008 championship. No one looked like they wanted to leave, but eventually Perkins climbed to his feet and walked out of the Garden into the cold night. The next time he comes, they'll probably all be gone. This sure felt like the end of something here, like goodbye.
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