BOSTON – Out of the raucous arena and through the tunnel hurried Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, his arms wrapped around Rajon Rondo and tears glistening in his eyes. In a conflicted instance of double-overtime euphoria and season-crushing defeat, the moment inspired a measure of chaos within Rivers' mind.
At its essence, this felt like the last stand of these Celtics, a prideful, painful final gasp for the franchise's championship core. When everyone had come to measure the return of the Miami Heat's Ray Allen in the context of the Celtics' demise, his nemesis, Rondo, did something that Allen had to have desperately wanted to do, in a way that he wished didn't happen.
Even now, Rondo had ripped the drama out of Allen's return to Boston and made the storyline about how Rondo's the talent that the Celtics can't live without.
Boston desperately misses Allen, and the loss of Rondo to a torn ACL in his right knee leaves the Celtics at a crossroads within weeks of a Feb. 21 trade deadline that could change the course of the franchise. Clinging to the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, losers of six of their last seven games, the predictable calls of "blow it up" begin again now.
Here's the reality: No one in the NBA is waiting with a fistful of talented young players and draft picks for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. No one mortgages franchise futures for aging thirty-something stars. Yes, "let's blow it up and start over" sounds noble in theory, but mostly leaves franchises in a hazy state of disarray for years to come.
"We aren't going anywhere," Rivers told Yahoo! Sports outside his office. "I don't get that thinking. You couldn't get what you wanted [in deals]. I still like our team. We're going to figure it out."
Part of Rivers' words were a natural defiance, a fight-or-flight response out of a most competitive basketball soul. Nevertheless, the financial reality of the NBA has changed the way franchises have to inspect the trading away of assets for futures. When the lottery balls don't deliver LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Derrick Rose, rebuilding can be a long, painful and expensive process.
These Celtics owners had years of bad lottery teams and the empty luxury suites and arena seats that come with it. The Celtics weren't competing for a championship with Rondo this season, but they could still make the playoffs without him.
This is a different day, a different era, a different financial landscape in the NBA. No one gives up packages of good young players and draft picks for All-Stars in the advanced stages of careers now. Those days are gone. In a quiet corner of the TD Garden on Sunday, Ainge understood it was impossible – never mind futile – to make a sweeping declaration about his intentions.
"In our situation, you can't just philosophically say, 'We're going to do this,' " Ainge told Yahoo! Sports. "You have to tell me what it is. You have to tell me what opportunities we have."
"Here's the thing: If I wanted to say, 'Hey, let's play for the future,' that's hard to do. And if I play only for the 'here and now,' that's hard to do."
Those kinds of trades are hard to do, Ainge meant.
"I'm going to look and see what opportunities are there, like any other year," Ainge said. "Last year, I was close to making a change that I felt would give us a better chance in the here and now, and in the future. And those are hard to do."
This was a reference to the near O.J. Mayo-Ray Allen deal with the Memphis Grizzlies, a trade that fell apart minutes before the deadline. The Celtics had told Allen that they believed the deal could happen, that he was gone, and it ultimately played a part in the acrimony surrounding his departure. Looking back, it would've been a prudent move for the Celtics. Looking back, it still bothers Ainge that it didn't happen.
Ainge has always insisted that his mentor, Red Auerbach, made a mistake staying too long with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, that he should've moved them when they still had value. Everything's changed now, though. No one plays for the "Let's go for it this year," deal and risks long-term franchise viability. There are point guards available to get the Celtics through the season, and Ainge says he'll meet with his front office and coaches on Monday to begin discussing them.
Outside the locker room late Sunday, Ainge excused himself when a young point guard walked past him on his way out of the arena, "Hey Avery [Bradley]," Ainge called to his new starting point guard. "I need to talk to you."
Between now and the trade deadline, Rivers will be reminding these Celtics over and over how magnificently the Chicago Bulls have played basketball without Rose. The Celtics aren't winning a title with or without Rondo this year, but the days of Auerbach picking up the phone and hustling the draft rights to Bill Russell and Kevin McHale and Len Bias are long gone.
"Draft picks are hard to come by now," Ainge said.
Boston has an elite coach, a determined roster and some guards – Bradley and Jason Terry – to keep pushing for the playoffs. This is a lousy NBA draft coming, and those playoff gates are still sizable. "Blow it up" sounds great on the barstool, but this is a different reality in the NBA, a different day.
Between now and the trade deadline, these Celtics get a chance to fight for everything. Perhaps they'll remember this double-overtime victory over the Miami Heat as a last stand someday, or perhaps simply the beginning of a long, arduous grind until Rondo runs back into the Garden next season.
"You can write our obituary," Doc Rivers said. "I won't."
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