BOSTON -- So, this is how it ends? All this time we wondered when Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce would age past the point of no return, and just as it seemed like that day was finally upon us, Rajon Rondo tore his ACL.
Years ago a vow was made to never dump dirt on the Celtics' graves before they were finally in the ground and even then I wanted a full account of the autopsy. They will look you in the eye and defiantly tell you that it's not over yet. They will tell you, as Pierce did, that they can matchup with anybody in the East and they will tell you, as Doc Rivers did, to save your eulogies.
"You can write the obituary," Rivers said. "I'm not."
All obits are written long before the inevitable death, so consider this the framework. The Celtics started with the idea that three great players at the end of their careers could come together and win a championship within three years. It worked both far quicker and for far longer than anyone ever dreamed.
They won it all in the first year and the run has lasted almost twice as long, but the signs were everywhere even before Rondo's knee gave out. Their defense is no longer dominant and their offense is still overly dependent on aging jump shooters who will now have to find shots without the point guard who assisted on more than half their shots when he was on the court. When Rondo returns next season he'll either find himself on a team that's another year older or radically different.
Their future was in doubt even before Rondo came down awkwardly on his right leg late in the fourth quarter of their wrenching double OT loss to the Hawks on Friday. Rondo being Rondo, he stayed on the court for the final 12 minutes of that game and came to the Garden fully expecting to play on Sunday.
He thought it was his hamstring, but the team doctor checked it out and knew immediately that something elsewas wrong. Rondo went to a local hospital for an MRI while all eyes were fixed on Ray Allen's return to Boston. But soon the worst fears were confirmed and no one cared about whether the fans booed Allen anymore.
The Celtics said all the right things about stepping up and not trying to fill Rondo's shoes and you want to believe them because again, every time you write them off they make you look foolish.
Pierce: "We found we can play anybody with the team we put out there. Even without Rondo."
Jeff Green: "We're relentless. We're going to come to battle. We're never going to give up."
Courtney Lee: "It's not just one person to pick up the load. It's on everybody."
They offered a stirring reminder of just how damn stubborn and resilient they can be in beating the Heat, 100-98, in double overtime on Sunday and finally displaying the vision that Danny Ainge and his staff in mind when they assembled a mix of versatile players last summer. They had Garnett surrounded by four wing players and Green guarding LeBron James like an All-Defensive forward. Unlike too many other days this season, they executed and paid attention to the small details that separate winning from losing.
Without Rondo, Rivers had them running a simplified spread offense that's been in place with the second team all season featuring shooters behind the arc, Garnett down low and dribble handoffs to initiate the action. That's essentially how they'll play the rest of the year. They have bodies in the backcourt to take up Rondo's minute, from Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley to Jason Terry and Leandro Barbosa.
"I like our team, still," Rivers said. "Obviously, that's a blow. That's a huge blow for us. When something like this happens someone we'll find someone that's already in our locker room that's going to play terrific. I have no idea who it is. Tonight it was LB and the whole team and that's what we're going to have to be."
After their most important win of the season, the Celtics are still two games under .500 more than halfway through the season. They've coasted on a reputation that no longer wins games, but they could always think to themselves that they'd figure it out eventually. They will play better because frankly they couldn't play much worse, and even without Rondo they are still probably a playoff team in the East.
The reality is they are up against the hard cap, meaning they can barely afford to take on any more salary and even if they could it's not like there are veteran point guards waiting by the phone who could make a difference. Not to mention adding another guard would do nothing to address their most pressing needs, which are size and scoring.
They could try to swing a deal for some help now, but it would be foolish to mortgage the future in terms of picks or players to help a team that can't score enough points and just lost arguably their best player. Their veteran role players are affordable but have limited trade value.
They could possibly -- theoretically -- trade Pierce, who has one year left on his contract and a $4 million buyout next season, but to what end? There is no savior in the draft and even if there was, few teams give away lottery picks anymore. While Ainge is no sentimentalist, he's not going to give Pierce away either.
There's a reason Ainge has been so patient this year and it's not just because he was waiting to see if his team would find itself. The Celtics best hope was always to fix themselves from within. Of course Ainge will listen to any and all offers, but he doesn't have to make a panic trade to salvage a season that may have been beyond repair anyway.
"We won tonight and the way I look at it is we're going to stay in there," Rivers said. "In my opinion, we're going nowhere."
That may be true in more ways than one.