I’ve been watching unhealthy amounts of basketball my whole life. Never has this been truer than in the last five seasons, since the 2007-08 season. A big part of this had to do with the coincidence of my relocation to Boston and the formation of the Celtics’ Big 3 in 2007. This also marked the first time I had cable :). Because of this, the Big 3 Era will hold a special place in my basketball-heart. And now that the Big 3 era has ended, I’m here to review this special chapter in Celtic History. Part I (this post) will go over the hiccups, highlights, and history of the Big 4. Part II (next post) will offer some thoughts, feelings, and analysis on the Big 4.
Part I: How It Went Down
Most of us know the story of the 2007-2012 Celtics: they came together to win a championship in their first season against their historic rival Lakers; returned to the Finals as underdogs in 2010 in a rematch against LA, only to lose in a heartbreaking Game 7; and fought off formidabel foes and father time until Ray Allen’s departure in the 2012 offseason.
Lost in the narrative ten years down the line will be the details, such as Perkins’s 2010 Finals injury and Rondo’s crooked arm in 2011. So let’s relive some of the memories and paint their history as best as we can in the length of a blog post.
2007-2008 season: The Beginning of an Era
Wikipedia aptly terms the Big 3 era as “The Big Four,” but it didn’t start out that way. The Celtics were coming off of a 24-58 season in 2006-07, good for worst record in the East and second-worst in the league. Having been royally screwed by the lottery and in need of satisfying their disgruntled Paul Pierce, the Celtics forwent a slow rebuild for an all-in strategy.
First, the Celtics traded Delonte West, fifth-overall-pick Jeff Green, and Wally Szczerbiak to the Seattle Supersonics (remember them?) in exchange for Ray Allen and a second-rounder (later used on Glen Davis). Next up was securing KG. In line with relinquishing young pieces such as West and Jeff Green, the Celtics traded away Gerald Green, Al Jefferson, Sebastian Telfair, Ryan Gomes, and (not-so-young) Theo Ratliff in exchange for Garnett. The Celtics filled out their roster by bringing in marksmen James Posey and Eddie House as free agents and attempting to bring Reggie Miller out of retirement (which failed).
Of course, there were many doubters. Were any of the Big 3, despite their reputations as stars, true “winners”? Could they compete without a tested point guard or center? What would their learning curve as teammates be? These questions were quickly answered. The Celtics won their first 8 games, moving on to reach stunning records of 20-2 and 29-3.
Their first game together, against my beloved Washington Wizards, set the stage for the next 5 seasons. In a 103-83 route, the Celtics started the same 5 players that would define them going forward: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Kendrick Perkins. Rondo, who had started about a third of the previous season’s games, and Perkins, who had started about two thirds of the previous season’s games, would both go on to start in every remaining game they played as Celtics (to date).
To gain more veteran experience, the Celtics signed veterans P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell, who both finished their careers as Celtics that season. Vets signing one-year deals to close out their careers in Green and White would become an annual tradition.
The Celtics finished 66-16, behind a stifling defense that ranks as the second-best of all time and MVP candidate/DPOY Kevin Garnett. Come playoff time, though, the Celtics’ regular season dominance was quickly forgotten.
As a #1 seed, the Celtics needed 7 games to take down a young and hungry Hawks team in the first round. Next up were LeBron and the Cavaliers (another recurring theme in the Big 3 Era). The Celtics won in 7, punctuated by Pierce and LeBron’s epic Game 7 duel (each had 40+). The series also included LeBron’s famous “no-regard-for-human-life” dunk.
The final foe in the East was the perennial powerhouse Pistons. The Celts came away victors in 6, including two away wins that helped mentally prepare them for the Finals matchup against the rival Lakers.
And what a Finals it was. The Celtics were making their first Finals appearance since 1987, when they lost to the Lakers in 6 games. The Celtics had home-court advantage, but the new-look Lakers (fresh off a Pau Gasol trade) were favored to win by 9/10 ESPN experts.
The drama started in Boston in Game 1. In a third quarter where he went 5-5 for 15 points, Pierce apparently hurt his knee and went into the locker room in a wheel chair. Famously, he came back mere minutes later and inspired his team to a Game 1 victory. In Game 2, a 24-point Celtics lead with 8 minutes to play was cut to 2 with 38.4 seconds left, but the Celtics managed to hold and go up 2-0. Much of this was thanks to a 21-point outburst from Leon Powe.
Moving to LA, the Lakers secured Game 3 and any chance at competing in the series. In Game 4, though, the Celtics made history once again. Down 35-14 after the first quarter (the biggest lead after one quarter in Finals history) and 24 in the 3rd, the Celts made the biggest comeback in Finals history, on the road no less, to go up 3-1 in LA.
After a the Lakers won Game 5 and pushed the series back to Boston, the Celtics sought to avoid a Game 7. In Game 6, their 26th playoff game of the season (an all-time record-high), the Celtics dominated the Lakers from tipoff to finish in a 39-point victory. Pierce took home Finals MVP as the Celtics had won their 17th championship in the Big 3’s very first season together. A most memorable time, indeed.
2008-2009: The Rise of Rondo
The 2008 championship was much deserved for the Big 3. All three players were masters of their craft and competition, they helped define their generation, and none had won a championship until then. Along for the ride was the important-but-young Rajon Rondo. The next season, though, Rondo would prove he was more than a Larry O’Brien free-rider.
The C’s started off the season hotter than the previous years, jumping out to an NBA-record 27-2 start that included a 19-game win streak (franchise record). Defensive ace James Posey had left for the Hornets in free agency, but the Celtics were able to resign Tony Allen on the cheap to fill in Posey’s role on D. Other forgotten moves include the signing of Stephon Marbury, who awkwardly reunited with former teammate Garnett. Like Cassell and Brown the year before, Stephon served a one year stint and proceeded to retire from the NBA.
With 25 games remaining, Garnett suffered a season-ending knee injury. The Celtics finished 62-20 with the #2 seed. In a thrilling first round series versus the Bulls and rookie Derrick Rose that featured 7 overtimes (6 of them in a thee-game span capped off by a triple over-time Game 6 and Joakim Noah’s career highlight), the Celtics emerged victorious in seven games. But in Round 2 versus the Magic, the Celtics didn’t have enough firepower to match Dwight and the eventual Eastern champs. After splitting the first two games at home, the Celtics nearly went down 3-1 before Big Baby hit a game-winner to save the day (and pushed a 10-year-old Magic fan in the process) to tie it up at 2-2. Up 3-2 going into Game 6, the Celtics faltered in the series’ final 2 games in a frustrating end to a frustrating season.
On a positive note, ’08-’09 was arguably Rondo’s finest season, finishing with to-date career-highs of .179 WS/48 and 9.9 Win Shares. He held the Celtics together as age and injury showed their signs, proving that he’d be instrumental in facilitating the C’s offense for years to come. It was officially a Big 4.
2009-2010: A Return to the Big Stage
With a healthy Garnett and an emerging Rondo, the Celtics were primed for another big year. Standing in their way were the Magic and the Cavs, but the Celtics knew they had the experience and defense to compete. Keeping the tradition alive, the Celtics added an aging veteran–this time Rasheed Wallace–who would play a single and final season with the Celtics before retiring.
The Celtics kept another tradition alive, once again starting the year at a torrid pace and going 23-5 through their first 28 games. But worries mounted when they Celtics went 27-27 the rest of the way, finishing with 50-32 and a #4 seed.
After an easy five-game series versus the Heat, the Celtics took on MVP LeBron James and the regular-season champion Cavaliers. After being down 2-1, the Celtics won 3 straight (including an infamous Game 5 from LeBron that sparked many-a-rumor) to advance to the ECF. There they would play the second-seeded Magic, where Boston won the first three games, the first two of which were in Orlando. They ended up winning in 6, setting the stage for a rematch with the Lakers.
The Lakers had finished with the best record in the West, and unlike in their previous Finals matchup versus the Celts, the Lakers had Bynum this time around. The Celtics played a poor Game 1 in LA and lost. Game 2 was Boston’s; they survived Gasol’s 25 points on 10 shots with Ray Allen’s NBA Finals-record 8 three-pointers and Rondo’s triple double.
As the series moved to Boston, Ray’s luck reversed–he didn’t manage to hit a single three pointer in Boston, missing all 16 threes he took in Games 3, 4, and 5. The Celtics lost Game 3, in which Ray went 0-13 FG, but managed to win Game 4 and Game 5. The C’s left home on this memorable hustle-play from Pierce/Rondo to secure their 3-2 series lead.
Back in LA, the Lakers were facing elimination. The Lakers demolished the Celtics in Game 6, winning 89-67. Moreover, Perkins’s season ended in the first quarter when he tore ligaments in his knee. This set up a Game 7 for the ages, and only the 4th such game since the NBA moved to the Finals to a 2-3-2 format in 1985
Game 7 lived up to the hype. After a back and forth first half, the Celtics found themselves leading 49-36 midway through the third quarter. But the Lakers roared back, taking a 76-70 lead with 90 seconds left. What followed was an exciting end to an exciting game and series. Rasheed hit a 3 to cut it to 76-73, but Artest responded with a clutch 3 to push the lead to 6. Ray promptly nailed a 3 to cut the lead to 3 again. The Lakers took a long possession, eventually getting fouled on an offensive rebound, and hit free throws to go up 81-76. With little time left, Rondo rebounded a missed Allen three and drained one himself, cutting the lead to 81-79 with little time left. Sasha “The Machine” Vujacic made both free throws, which proved to to be the last points scored in the series. The Lakers won 83-79 and were world champions.
2010-2011: The Beginning of the End
Despite the success the previous season, there were major doubts surrounding the Celtics this season–if not in the locker room, then at least among fans. LeBron James decided to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, the aging Celtics were all a year older, and Perkins wouldn’t return to NBA action until February. With Rasheed gone and Perkins out, the Celtics, as per annual tradition, took on big name veterans for a single, career-closing seasons; this time it was Jermaine O’Neal and Shaq. The Celtics, through free agency and a trade-to-be-discussed, also took on Carlos Arroyo and Nenad Kristic, both of whom haven’t played in the NBA since.
Despite the grim outlook, there was reason for optimism. They beat the Heat in the season opener, and then beat them on the road two weeks later. The Celtics looked dominant once again; they were 19-3 in games Shaq played 20+ minutes and 33-10 without Perkins. Shortly after the All-Star break, though, the Celtics made their biggest move since the formation of the Big 3–they traded away Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson for Nenad Kristic, Jeff Green, and a future first-rounder.
The new-look Celtics limped to the finish line. Shaq hadn’t suied up since February and the Celtics finished 56-26 with the third seed in the playoffs. It was a good season, still; Ray Allen became the all-time leader in made three-pointers, Pierce became the third Celtic to score 20,000 points, and the team was only behind the Bulls (led my MVP Rose) and the Heatles in the East.
Coming off a first round sweep of the Knicks in Round 1 and having owned the Heat in the regular season, the Celtics had every reason to be optimistic in their round two matchup versus Miami. Alas, the Heat won in five, despite the memorable “elbow game” from Rondo in Game 3, the Celtics’ sole victory in the sereis. Wade and LeBron, who had to up until then fallen to the Celtics a combined 3 times in the previous 3 seasons, were too much firepower for the aging Celtics.
2011-2012: The Last Stand
With the Bulls and the Heat only getting better, the future did not look bright for the Big 4 Era. On top of that, a compressed 66-game schedule in the lockout shortened season loomed large for the creaky veterans and Jeff Green would miss the season with a heart condition. Yikes.
The Celtics proceeded to scratch two traditions that season–they failed to sign a big-name veteran for a single season and they failed to start out at a blazing pace. In fact, they were a mere 15-17 at the All-Star break. Forget a last hurrah, the Celtics were not even primed to make the playoffs at that point. But the Celtics got back to what they did best–defense. Behind KG and second-year guard Avery Bradley, the Celts D’ed up the entire L. They went 24-10 in the second half, finishing 39-27 with another four-seed in the playoffs.
The 2012 playoffs did not lack drama for Boston. Ray Allen had missed about a third of the season and sat out the final portion with injury; in his absence, Avery Bradley played phenomenally on both sides of the ball. Going into the playoffs, Bradley was the starter and remained so through their six-game series victory over the Hawks.
But in the second round against the Sixers, Bradley suffered a shoulder injury that would sideline him through the playoffs. Allen slid into the starting spot, but proceeded to shoot the worst he’d ever shot in any playoffs (and this was coming after a season in which he shot a career-high 45.3% from beyond the arc). The Celtics didn’t sweat, though, and won the series in a dogfight seven-game series that saw Rondo record two triple-doubles.
Next up were the Heat in the ECF. Both teams held home court the first four games and two of them saw overtime action, including one of Rondo’s all-time great performances in Game 2. In a surprising result, Boston stole Game 5 in Miami and went home leading 3-2 with a chance to advance to their third NBA Finals in five years. Unfortunately for the Celtics, LeBron saved one of his finest playoff performances ever for Game 6, a game which saw him shoot 19-26 for 45 points, with 15 rebounds and 5 assists to boot. A rejuvenated Heat took their talents back down to South Beach for Game 7. Boston, as always, was ready to fight. The Celts built and 11-point first half lead and were up 7 at halftime. But the lead wasn’t enough; the Heat had tied the game going into the fourth and pulled away in the fourth, ending the Celtics’ season and the Big 4 Era.
July 11th, 2012: A Bitter End
Less than a month after the Heat lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy, Ray Allen signed with the very team that eliminated his team each of the previous two years: The Miami Heat.
Stay tuned for Part II of the Celtics Big 3 (slash 4!) Era Recap!
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