Celtics face an uncertain future
Series against Cavaliers could be swan song for Big Three, Rivers
When the Boston Celtics take the floor for Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers, they will be doing so (A) as consensus underdogs for the first time in three years and (B) without home-court advantage for the first time in three years.
Which begs the following: Will this also be the last time we see the new Big Three together?
Regardless of what happens in the series, the times they are indeed a-changin' in Celtic Nation. Ray Allen will become a free agent. Doc Rivers may decide he's had enough. Paul Pierce could become a free agent if he opts out of his current deal. Tony Allen, Nate Robinson and Marquis Daniels also will be free agents along with Brian Scalabrine, Michael Finley and Shelden Williams. Daniels and Robinson were supposed to be key reserves, but Rivers clearly has lost faith in both of them and their futures in Boston look dim.
Everyone's attention now is on what Rick Pitino used to call "the precious present," so talk of a potential diaspora is a bit premature. But it's going to happen. Regardless of what happens in this series, or in future series should the Celtics unexpectedly advance, there will be a new look at TD Garden next season. How new is the big unknown. The Cavaliers and LeBron James are prohibitive favorites to not only win Game 1 on Saturday (7½ point favorites) but also to flush the Celtics in the series. The 10 esteemed gents who make predictions for ESPN have all picked Cleveland to advance, with only two feeling the series will go the full seven games.
It should be noted that most of these lads also picked the Lakers to beat the Celtics in the 2008 Finals. And while Las Vegas may have liked the Lakers as well, the only way you could have not picked the Celtics to win that series was if you simply hadn't been paying attention, especially in their series with the Pistons.
This year, it was risky to pick them at all. We weren't sure which Celtics team would show up for the Miami series, based on their tepid performance over the final 54 games of the regular season. But the Celtics made good on their promise to "bring it" in the postseason after clearly being bored for, oh, the previous four months.
They played terrific defense against the Heat, especially in Boston, and did something no Celtics team has done in the past three years -- win a playoff series in fewer than six games. That gave them time to prepare for Cleveland -- not that there are really any surprises left -- and, more important, to rest up. They're going to need it.
This group has played seven playoff series since coming together and has trailed in a series only three times -- all last season. It lost the openers against the Bulls and Magic and also was down 2-1 to the Magic. This group is 5-2 in Game 1s, but all of those games were in Boston.
The one thing we do know about this team is that it doesn't mind the road. It had a better road record (26-15) than home record (24-17). It then proceeded to take care of business in the first round in the customary fashion, winning three times at home (by an average of 16 points) and gaining a split on the road. Pierce admitted that the Celtics may have to win more than once in Cleveland to have a chance in this series. He's probably right.
The teams staged an epic seven-gamer in 2008 that featured James' mother going at the Celtics from her baseline seat and a terrific Game 7 with Pierce and LeBron going at each other. James says that series is the basis for all the acrimony between the teams, even though only five current Cavaliers participated in that series: James, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Delonte West, Anderson Varejao and Daniel Gibson (who rarely plays now and was injured during the 2008 series). Cleveland's top four playoff scorers after James -- Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams, Shaquille O'Neal and Anthony Parker -- were all elsewhere in 2008.
The Celtics? Their starting five in Game 1 will be the same as it was throughout the 2008 playoffs. Davis is now the first "big" off the bench, supplanting the lifeless Wallace. Tony Allen has been in and out of Rivers' doghouse this season, but emerged in the Miami series as the first (some might say only) guard off the bench. He even is the designated backup point guard, which says a lot about Robinson and puts a lot more pressure on Rondo, who seems able and willing to handle it.
Is this the beginning of the end for Rivers and the Big Three? Will they be just a memory -- albeit a pleasant one for most -- in just two weeks' time? We know this much: The parties may go their separate ways this summer but starting Saturday, they are still together and, they say, as determined and motivated as ever. We'll have to see if that's enough to keep them together a little while longer.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.