When we think of the great recent teams in Boston Celtics history, groups like the 2008 championship squad and the 2010 team that made it to the finals immediately come to mind. The “Big 3” were in their heyday, and Rajon Rondo was truly coming into his own as an elite player. There were win streaks, awards and an overwhelming feeling that no matter who lined up on the court next to Boston for the national anthem, they were a worthy opponent.
However, all good things must come to an end, and after the failed attempt at glory in 2010, the Celtics seemed to be on the decline. Not a single fan during that time period can forget the anguish of losing Kendrick Perkins when victory seemed certain; a problem that was never solved and resulted in a gross lack of rebounding. This lack of rebounding was just what the Los Angeles Lakers needed to have an edge, and went on to win in the Finals in seven games.
I can’t imagine Danny Ainge got much sleep that offseason knowing his Celtics were an extra rebounder or big body in the paint away from franchise history. Apparently, something clicked in him and he went big man crazy.
The signing of Shaquille O’Neal in the offseason sealed the deal. Ainge was going all in on Boston’s paint patrol. Just look at the team he had thrown together. The usually staples such as Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rondo were there, but with a backcourt of Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O’Neal, Kendrick Perkins and Shaq? That’s the stuff of NBA 2K custom mode, not a real NBA team. If you think it’s all too good to be true, guess what?
The Celtics skyrocketed through the league, finishing at the All-Star break at the top of the Eastern Conference. The Big Three were better than ever with Rondo becoming an integral cog, even bringing a brief moment in Celtics history when they had a Big Four. (Each member of which made the All-Star team.) Heck, you could justify the entire starting five belonging in the All-Star game.
The icing on the cake was that Shaq was not just being a decent, serviceable veteran center, but was a lot of fun to watch. He was grabbing alley-oops and bringing some nasty defense down on the young guns trying to solidify their spots in the league. Dwight Howard wasn’t having a good time trying to guard him, and neither was anyone else. We were beholding the most dominant the Celtics had been in recent memory. Boston was looking like a team poised to head back to the Finals.
As quickly as the success was there, it was all gone. An injured Shaq in combination with the loss of Perkins in a deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder spelled the end for the Celtics. After falling to third in the East, they met the end of the road at the hands of the Miami Heat in the second round of the playoffs, a series that seemed to set the tone for the rest of the “Big 3” era.
The trade signified that times were a-changin’ for the Celtics. Look at them now, and it’s hard to believe they were once a team headlined by four legends and an All-Star point guard.
I suspect the first half of that season will be largely forgotten in the history books of Boston basketball. I imagine Ainge wishes he could take it back, although without such a deal, the Celtics would presently be without Jeff Green, a player seen as the future of the franchise.
Did Ainge trade away glory for future mediocrity, or did he know the Celtics couldn’t keep playing the way they were forever and invested in the future? Only time will tell.