Before the trade deadline passed, the Boston Celtics had one final choice to make on the franchise's future: In a three-way deal that would've secured Josh Smith and surrendered Paul Pierce to Dallas, Atlanta wanted Boston's first-round draft pick, too.
As much as any of the proposed deals discussed in February, perhaps this had been the closest Pierce had come to parting with the Celtics, sources told Yahoo! Sports.
Dallas had constructed a package that included Jae Crowder, Brandan Wright and Dahntay Jones to Atlanta, with the Mavericks and Hawks exchanging positions in the 2013 NBA draft.
Nevertheless, Boston wouldn't relent on the pick and the deal died on meeting-room grease boards in three cities. Celtics coach Doc Rivers has always understood that general manager Danny Ainge's reshaping of the roster is inevitable, but he's never been in a hurry to lord over a rebuild.
As the Hawks meet the Celtics on Friday night in Boston, the Celtics have won 13 of 17 games since they lost point guard Rajon Rondo for the season. The bench has been reconstructed, Pierce and Kevin Garnett are remarkably rejuvenated and Avery Bradley has been spectacular in his development. At 33-27 and holding the seventh seed, Boston is within 1½ games of the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
"We've definitely found who we are, but it's been a search," Rivers told Yahoo! Sports. "Here's why I love coaching this team: We're flawed and we know it. We know that we're not deep. We know that we're not big. We know that we don't have great ball handlers.
"But the guys, they know who are now."
To watch Rivers leave the floor on Wednesday night in Indianapolis – pumping his fist over and over, screaming, "Yes … YES! … YES!" on his way into the tunnel – is to understand the joy he's found coaching these Celtics. Somehow, the Celtics hung around and hung around with the powerful Pacers, distilled the game to a final possession and executed brilliantly for a layup that left Indiana less than a second on the clock.
Pierce tied up two Pacers with a screen, Kevin Garnett stayed patient for Jeff Green to free himself and hit him with the pass under the rim. Rivers had an idea to call a different play, but listened to one of his assistants, Armond Hill, talk him into something that they successfully run in the first half. History and trust and belief can still carry the day.
For these Celtics, it's useless sitting around and discussing themselves as championship contenders. With Rondo, it was farfetched. Without him, they'll feel his loss even more in the playoffs. For now, they're thrilled they're still together, still making trouble for everyone.
"What I've told our guys is simply let's put our head down and keep playing," Rivers said. "Let's do the best we can do, and see where it takes us. And I think we're going to be surprised how far it can take us."
Every year, the Celtics go through this now: Do they make it together to the trade deadline, the draft-day deals and July free agency? Every year, it feels like the end and yet the core mostly stays together. Ray Allen is gone now, and Pierce and Garnett could've been moved at the deadline.
Only, they're still here, still chasing the springtime. These Celtics aren't championship contenders, but somehow they're pushing on fourth place in the Eastern Conference, pushing themselves back from the brink.
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