BOSTON – Once Kevin Garnett was gone for good and the chances for a championship defense crippled, Doc Rivers confessed to chasing an irrepressible question into the subconscious of the elder Boston Celtics: Why bother?
This wasn't about professionalism, but human nature. For Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, there threatened to be a steep letdown. They hung the 17th championship banner, had rushed out to one of the best starts in NBA history and K.G.'s gimpy knee changed everything.
"That's an easy place to go," the Celtics coach told me the other day. "For your veterans, when Kevin goes down, it's easy to go: 'Now what?' It's not a subject you like to bring up, but as a coach it's the first thing you talk about."
These Celtics were a thirtysomething core returning this season with an unmistakable mandate: Do it again and deliver themselves into franchise immortality. Everyone wants to repeat as champions, but Boston has such a diminishing opportunity with the advancing age of Garnett, Pierce and Allen.
Now, they find themselves embroiled in a marvelous series with the Chicago Bulls and the strangest thing has happened: With a title beyond improbable, with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers on a collision course, the Celtics should understand the Bulls have done them a favor. Pierce and Allen won't win a title this year, but this series, tied 2-2 with Game 5 on Tuesday, has captivated the sport and delivered the Celtics a worthy cause.
As opening rounds go, this is turning into a classic. They played a brilliant Game 4 into double overtime and Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo are threatening to create the same type of rivalry in the Eastern Conference that Chris Paul and Deron Williams have in the West. Rondo is averaging a triple-double and Rose has been resounding.
Yes, the Celtics are beat up. They're missing K.G. Leon Powe is lost, too. Yet, the Bulls lost Luol Deng, and now Ben Gordon, who shot Chicago back into this series, will get an MRI on Monday for his hamstring. This series is emblematic of a bigger NBA issue: There are too many stars out of these playoffs and too many playing hurt.
Yes, there have been some thrilling games, but something is lost without K.G., Manu Ginobili, Tracy McGrady, Elton Brand and Jameer Nelson. What's more, Tim Duncan and Tyson Chandler are shells of themselves. Perhaps there weren't any teams at full-strength that would've beaten the Lakers or Cavaliers in these conference playoffs. Even so, beyond the Celtics and Spurs, the rest of the teams have credibility issues on playoff performance. They should be desperate to advance. Some are young teams on the rise, some are veteran teams that have too long underachieved.
Now, Boston gets a best-of-three to beat the Bulls and they must understand: Maybe it isn't a title, but there's still something precious on the line. For Pierce and Allen, the Bulls have turned this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series into a test of championship heart. They still have better players, a better coach and two of three left at the Garden.
No one will give the Celtics an out for losing to the Bulls, no one will let K.G. and Powe be an excuse for losing to this team. Against Dallas, San Antonio is outmanned, but Boston has no such excuse. The Celtics will be judged harshly for losing this series, and deservedly so.
Pierce and Allen started sluggishly, but finally started to play inspired basketball. All along, Rondo has been genius. Despite the Celtics' diminished state, they can't possibly fear the winner of Orlando-Philadelphia in a conference semifinal. Through it all, Boston still has a terrific chance to get where it expected to be: the Eastern Conference finals against LeBron James and the Cavs.
When Rivers, one of the NBA's true leaders, gathered these Celtics for the title defense, he sold the idea that the real Celtics legacy comes with multiple championships. It was the right pitch, but it has changed. Now, the Bulls have offered a far smaller, far less-scaled cause, but a reason nonetheless. No one wants to be on the wrong side of history, and that's where the Celtics would find themselves with a loss to the Bulls. Before the series, Rivers explored that dark basketball place without K.G., where he feared he could lose his veterans, but insisted, "I don't think we've gone there."
Well, Chicago has done Boston a favor, and answered the question. Maybe the Celtics can't win a title, but this series has become too important, too epic, to dismiss as winning nothing at all.