- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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The front-office architect of the Boston Celtics woke up Thursday morning with an uncluttered calendar and a gnawing frustration over a season that ended abruptly in Miami, crushed under the weight of a ferocious 16-0 run that elevated the Heat to the Eastern Conference finals and downgraded Boston from championship contender to the "also ran" category of once-proud teams that can no longer close the deal.
Danny Ainge challenges that characterization of his basketball team. He believes his 30-something nucleus can still win it all and will spend most of his summer angling ways to tweak a roster that will again be centered around Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo.
Yet his optimism for the future did not off set his dissatisfaction over what transpired.
"I'm disappointed," said Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations. "I'm disappointed in how we played the last 20 games of the regular season. I thought we should have had home-court advantage through the playoffs.
"I feel like we should be ahead 3-2 [in the Miami series] instead of going home.
"The last two games we played better than they did. But, as everyone knows, we gave it away in Game 4, and in Game 5 we outplayed them for 44 minutes and then fell apart. It happens. I've got to give Miami credit. Those guys made some tough, tough shots.
"But I felt the quality of shots we missed were so much better than the quality of shots they made."
That may be true, but as Celtics coach Doc Rivers correctly pointed out, the NBA is a "make-miss" league. It always has been and always will be.
Boston's Big Three had a shot to win it at the end of regulation in Game 4, yet Garnett botched a play they've run countless times by failing to set a screen for Pierce to run a pick-and-roll, leaving Pierce with the ball, the clock ticking down, and no other option than to throw up a desperation fallaway.
"Unexplainable," Ainge agreed.
In the final four minutes of Game 5, Boston's attempts included a Garnett turnaround jumper that rolled off, an Allen upfake that sent James Jones leaping to the rafters and gave Boston's sniper a wide-open 3 that came up short, and a Jeff Green drive that wouldn't go down.
The team's inability to score in the final quarter throughout the series prompts an obvious conclusion that older players with weary legs that have weathered significant mileage fail them in the final minutes of a taxing basketball game, while younger, fresher, more athletic stars maintain their lift and their energy.
"Sometimes we got fatigued," Ainge conceded. "But I don't believe that was the case [Wednesday] night.
"I don't know what happened. We had point-blank shots. It's not all fatigue. Kevin [Garnett] had about a 20-minute rest in between the third and the fourth quarter. Paul [Pierce] had all sorts of rest because he was in foul trouble.
"Our guys are capable of winning games like that. Our guys of capable of hitting shots like that. But we missed them, and I don't think [Miami's] defense was the reason."
Ainge will be second-guessed throughout the summer for pulling the trigger on a deal that sent center Kendrick Perkins packing to Oklahoma City. Boston acquired Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic and the results were underwhelming. Asked if he would do it over again, Ainge responded, "Yes, no regrets."
While acknowledging Green "didn't exactly tear it up" during his brief tenure in Boston, Ainge insisted, "I wasn't disappointed with Jeff. I think he was a little disappointed in himself, though.
"My expectations were probably a little different than others. I have always liked Jeff's game. He had some good games and some not so good games.
"The more he played, the better he played. The more he played with better players, the better he played."
Green's job entailed spelling Pierce on the defensive end against elite scorers like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, a role he handled with mixed results. His struggles to carve a niche offensively were well-documented, although he intermittently showed signs of promise. When Rivers called his name with post-ups, he was more aggressive than when he was left to his own devices and got caught standing and watching and ultimately deferring to KG, Pierce and/or Allen.
"It was the byproduct of a new position, a new team, a new coach, all of those things," Ainge said.
Green's uneven play aside, clearly something else changed after Perkins' departure. The numbers illustrate a significant drop in offensive efficiency, which was not a forte of the former center. Perhaps then it was the intangibles that Perkins brought, such as toughness and chemistry in the locker room, that departed with him to Oklahoma City.
"I think that's a bunch of garbage," Ainge retorted. "Whether chemistry went awry or not, that might be true, but I don't think it's because we traded Perk."
Then what was it that caused the chemistry to dissipate in the final months?
"There are little things that come up," Ainge said. "Guys on this team have been together a long time."
With Rivers indicating he will return for another season, it's unlikely the roster will undergo a major overhaul. Ainge has decisions to make on the futures of free agents Glen "Big Baby" Davis, Delonte West and Nenad Krstic, as well as Green, who becomes a restricted free agent and, if he returns, will likely enjoy an expanded role.
Boston will likely attempt to retain Green and West -- provided the price is right. The same could be true for Krstic and Davis, in spite of Davis' disappointing postseason. The Celtics will not throw big money at Davis, but because they are over the cap and severely limited in what they can do regarding player movement, it would be prudent for them to consider Davis -- again, at the right price. If they do, they'd be wise to threaten him with fines and/or suspensions if his weight balloons the way it did in the final month of 2011.
Ainge said it was "premature" to discuss future transactions because of a potential looming lockout and uncertainty surrounding the collective bargaining agreement.
"None of us know what will happen in this new world of basketball," Ainge said. "Will the rules be the same? Will they be different? We have to wait and see."
If the Celtics don't pull off a major trade, and it's hard to imagine how they could with the personnel they have, they likely will be trying to win again with many of the same, albeit older, faces.
"In all honesty, the injury bug bit us pretty hard," Ainge said. "Now that's not an excuse. But we lost key role players that put added pressure on our starters to play more minutes."
Center Shaquille O'Neal played so well with the Big Four, Ainge determined Perkins, who would be seeking a lucrative new contract at season's end, could be expendable. In games that Shaq was able to log 21 minutes or more, the Celtics were 20-4. Rondo's scoring, assists and shooting percentage soared when the Big Shamrock was on the floor.
Yet O'Neal was plagued by a persistent Achilles tendon injury that left him hobbled for the final months of the season. He underwent extensive treatment, even resorted to multiple cortisone shots to find a way back on the floor, but his 39-year old body didn't respond. He has likely played his final game in the NBA.
Jermaine O'Neal underwent knee surgery, then suffered a left wrist injury in Game 1 of the postseason that, according to Ainge, hampered him the rest of the way.
"When J.O. was healthy, our defense was better than it had been in a long time," Ainge said. "That wrist injury was more serious than people realize. He was a right-handed shooter, but a left-handed finisher."
Add knee woes for Krstic that required two MRIs and West's myriad of injuries (shoulder, wrist, ankle) and the rotation Rivers and Ainge envisioned for the playoff run simply never materialized.
Once Rondo dislocated his elbow and was forced to play one-armed for the rest of the series, Boston's chances of remaining upright were all but nil.
A blueprint that relied on a 39-year-old and 36-year-old to anchor the middle proved to be unwise. A younger, more athletic center will be the main priority.
But how can a team that's over the cap accomplish that on the cheap?
"It's a fair question," Ainge answered. "It's not like there is some superstar guy out there waiting for us. When you have so much money tied up in the Big Four, it makes it awfully tough. Tough -- but not impossible."
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
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