The Boston Celtics were eliminated in five games by the Miami Heat, the final blow a bloody fourth quarter coup by LeBron James himself. Some mourning Celtics fans will (wrongly) blame Danny Ainge for trading Kendrick Perkins. Some will point to Rajon Rondo's broken body. Many fear this is the end of the championship road for this collection of stars, that after missing an opportunity for a second NBA title for the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen core in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals, this second round dismissal by this challenger represents a final, fatal entry in the history books.
But even if that's the case and the Celtics cannot realistically contend again -- that's a suggestion we'll address later on -- this team has made its mark.
In the moment, in the passion of the day-by-day observation of and commentary on the league, we lose sight of the greater narrative. Every possession is a narrative in and of itself, a battle of wills and, for one side, success. Players like LeBron finish a game with dozens of minor wins, maybe a few major wins and some losses. The game just happens to be 48 minutes long, and at the end, we assess a winner, and that's what we take forward. Individual Celtics had some wins in Game 5, some major, and some losses, some major. But in the end, the result is binary: the Celtics lost -- that's one loss, zero wins -- and are eliminated.
So goes the season: one team wins, 29 lose, and that's the binary result. But our brains are wired to understand context and nuance, to employ some depth of greater understanding about binary results, realities deeper than the binary results themselves. The Lakers were the only team that "won" the 2010 NBA season, but we know the Celtics fought hard (minor victory), the Cavaliers crumbled (major loss), the Thunder rose (victory), the Mavericks failed. We have the context to understand why LeBron eventually left Cleveland, why the Thunder rise.
And someday, we will have the appropriate perspective to understand why the Boston Celtics were a raging success.
We are so focused on writing history as it happens that we ignore our own relationship with history. Do we fear the Celtics, they of just one title, will become a footnote in NBA history books, like the 1977 Blazers, '78 Bullets, '79 Sonics? Are teams that win just one championship in an era automatically outliers? Will the history of this era herald the Lakers' repeat titles and just mention the Celtics' No. 17?
There's evidence to suggest it won't; in the grander context of basketball, Boston changed things. Remember Kevin Garnett as he was and not as he is, the choker of Minneapolis, a talented mass of fast-twitch and skill who wasn't good enough to get past the first round of the playoffs, lest Sam Cassell carry him and everyone else on his back. Remember Garnett before the Celtics, and remember how teaming up with Pierce and Allen and a bizarre little point guard named Rajon made KG something greater than even his old MVP trophy and all of his All-Star jerseys had hinted at.
Boston changed things for Garnett, and for the NBA. The narrative regarding the coalescing of stars -- the so-called Superteam era -- has its modern roots in Boston. Remember that Garnett initially expressed trepidation at a possible trade to the Celtics, and that there was skepticism he'd sign a necessary extension if dealt. To allay concerns about Boston's fitness to compete, Ainge shipped the No. 5 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft to Seattle for Allen; with Pierce and Ray in place, KG consented to the trade and signed the extension. The rest is history. Garnett knew he needed help, and made sure he had enough before agreeing to commit to Boston. The South End was the original South Beach.
One of the failings we have as observers is the focus on the binary when looking forward. Will the Celtics win again with this core? If not, should they blow it up? We forget that the binary result -- the win, the championship -- is just the final word in the narrative, that the narrative itself is worth embracing. The Celtics did not win the 2010 title, and will not win the 2011 title. Does that make, for fans and disinterested observers alike, the 2010 or 2011 seasons unenjoyable, unrewarding? When someone from the future brings up the Garnett-era Celtics, are we going to shake our heads in disappointment? Are we going to shrug?
Hell no. This has been a team worth celebrating, despite binary failure in the past three seasons. This is a team worth remembering when all is done, a team worth notating as the grandfathers of the modern Superteam. (That's not an "old" joke, promise.) And for the next two or three seasons, so long as Garnett stalks and Pierce bucks and Allen strokes and Rondo winds, it's a team worth enjoying. The Boston Celtics have failed in the binary, granular sense in a way that is unmistakable: they have lost. But that doesn't erase all that they have given us and will give us. Long live the Celtics.