Remember: Ainge Came Close to Blowing This Up

The final seconds ticked off the clock, and Game Seven The Game That Must Not Be Named ended with a Celtics whimper. They'd been *this close* to winning another title, *this close* to shocking the world by chasing a ring from the Eastern Conference's fourth seed, *this close* to restoring the chinks in Kobe Bryant's armor. Instead, the Celtics returned to the visitor's locker room. There was no champagne awaiting them, no whooping or cheering, and no celebratory gear. Only tears. So it goes.

We all remember that. But we sometimes forget how close Danny Ainge came to ending the Big Three's run early. We sometimes forget how lucky we are to still watch the synergy created by Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. At the trade deadline last season, Ainge thought about pulling the plug.

He called around the league. Offered Ray Allen (and his expiring contract) for a barrage of players. Amare Stoudemire. Michael Beasley. Andre Iguodala. Carlos Boozer. Monta Ellis. Even came close to completing a trade for Caron Butler, before Butler was traded to the Dallas Mavericks. Had any of the trades worked out, Ainge would have let the Big Three go. He saw the two-decade slippage that happened after the Larry Bird Era, and Ainge vowed to himself he would trade his stars if they ever needed to go.

As Ainge told Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen, Red Auerbach could have corralled some talented players had he decided to trade Larry Bird or Kevin McHale. 

Ainge said the Pacers wanted to acquire Bird in 1988 for a package that included Chuck Person, Herb Williams and Steve Stipanovich. Boston also could have moved McHale to the Mavericks for Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins, according to Ainge.

"I'll never forget being at that Christmas party and we discussed them," he said of the offers Auerbach had received for Bird and McHale. "He told us all at that time he wasn't going to trade any of us, that he wanted us to finish our careers as Celtics. And a few months later, they traded me for Joe Kleine and Ed Pinckney."

Ainge said he understood Auerbach's logic in moving him for a couple of big men who could fill in for Bird and McHale as they aged.

"But you could get Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins in their early 20s for Kevin McHale on a downward-slide team that was not going to win a championship," said Ainge. "Stipanovich would be hurt and wouldn't play, but Chuck had a good career. Those guys were still young, and instead you were getting two or three more years of Larry, but you were only getting 75-80 percent of Larry. We didn't have a chance to win the championship in '88-89 because Larry wasn't playing -- he was in those ankle casts. I don't think anybody really believed we were a championship team during the 1988-89 season or after that. We were just hanging on."

Those '88-'89 Celtics were just hanging on, like a six-year old me after I fell off a skiing chair lift and somehow grabbed hold of the leg support. Or, like last year's Celtics. 

Anybody who thought last year would end the way it did, with a history-defying run to the NBA Finals, must be the type of person who still thinks Gerald Green will become an NBA All-Star. Anybody who watched the '09-'10 Celtics fall apart midseason, and thought, "They're going to make a run at the NBA Finals this season, no doubt about it. Then, they're going to be title favorites again next year. And KG's glory will return, and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen won't look a day older, and Rajon Rondo will lead the league in assists" probably needed their temperature checked.

There were no signs of the playoff run that ultimately validated a miserable season, no signs the Big Three still had more life in them. So Ainge shopped his stars around, looking for a way to build his team a new window of opportunity.

He laughed and added, "If I'd had those kinds of offers for K.G. or Pierce or Ray last year (that Auerbach got for Bird and McHale), I might have done it, too, given the way things were going last season."

Ainge laughed, but I suspect he was serious. And who could have blamed him? Not me. I spent most of last season (when I wasn't crying about the latest miserable loss) wondering why the C's hadn't traded Ray Allen and gotten younger. The Big Three were all washed up. Allen couldn't hit the broad side of Big Baby's rump, KG and Pierce dragged their legs behind them, and Rondo was stuck playing alongside three players who looked like they would soon be bound to wheelchairs (for Pierce, it wouldn't be the first time). I don't know what was more depressing -- the final 54 games of last year's regular season, or the movie "My Sister's Keeper." (Or the fact that I actually watched "My Sister's Keeper.)

Fast forward. The Celtics now sit at 34-10, atop the Eastern Conference and trailing only San Antonio for the NBA's best mark. Perk returned last night (and looked a lot like the Perk of old), Delonte West's on his way back, and the Big Three all look years younger than last season.

I briefly imagine what the Celtics would look like with Iguodala, Boozer, Butler, or any of those other players mentioned in the trade talks. Then I just shake my head, forget all about it, and watch the '10-'11 Celtics make their own old legs look young. 

Ainge always vowed he would break up the Big Three when it was time. For a while, he and I both thought that time had come. Whether Ainge realized it hadn't or simply broke his own vow, we'll never know. Whatever the case, what resulted from Ainge's failure to pull the trigger was, and is, a beautiful thing.

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