The seconds ticked down on the Boston Celtics’ season as Game 6 against the New York Knicks slipped away, a ferocious fourth-quarter comeback falling just short.
Kevin Garnett trudged toward the bench to a standing ovation, and he stopped quickly to whisper in Coach Doc Rivers’ ear. Rivers shook his head, muttering “damn” as a six-year run of championship-level basketball in Boston flashed before his eyes. Three thousand miles away in Los Angeles, the stitches had recently been removed from Kobe Bryant’s left leg and the long, painful rehabilitation of a torn Achilles tendon was only beginning.
The Celtics and Lakers are aching, aging and nowhere to be found now that the second round of the playoffs has started. The last time the second round began without at least one of the league’s two marquee franchises was the 2006-07 season, before Pau Gasol arrived in L.A. to help get the Shaq-less Lakers over the hump and before KG landed in Boston to help turn things around.
Now both teams head into the offseason far sooner than they’re accustomed to, with big stars on the mend and a lingering question: Does either team deserve headliner status anymore?
The Miami Heat are the clear kings these days, the defending NBA champions with the best player in the world. The San Antonio Spurs, who hammered the Lakers in the first round, and even the Knicks, who overcame their own immaturity to overwhelm the older Celtics, also sit higher on the totem pole at the moment.
And there are younger stars entering their prime in Oklahoma City, Golden State and with that other team in Los Angeles, the Clippers.
The hard decisions for the Lakers and Celtics are just around the corner.
The Lakers were a mess all season, firing their coach five games in and limping through a humbling 45-37 year that included injuries to Gasol, Howard and Steve Nash. Then Bryant went down, and there was no chance.
The new collective bargaining agreement is also set to unleash an avalanche of luxury tax penalties on the team with the largest payroll in the league next season — as much as $85 million if they re-sign Howard and keep Gasol and his $19 million salary.
“When you lose, everything is in play,” GM Mitch Kupchak said. “This is the third year in a row that you could argue we didn’t live up to or play up to expectations.”
Kupchak’s biggest challenge may be persuading Howard to stay. Bryant may not be fully healthy until January, Nash will turn 40 next season and the rest of the roster is filled with journeymen and role players, taking some of the glitz out of what has long been one of the most glamorous destinations in the league.
“If you just look at the opportunity, which is to play for this franchise in this city, with what this franchise has meant to this city and its accomplishments, that’s probably the most any team can offer a player,” Kupchak said.
The Celtics lost point guard Rajon Rondo to a torn ACL in January, almost a month before the trade deadline. But GM Danny Ainge declined to add another ball-handler, and it cost them dearly in the playoffs against the Knicks.
Now the Celtics enter yet another summer of deciding whether to bring back Pierce and Garnett, or start over around a rehabbing Rondo and Jeff Green, who played well with the increased minutes. Only this time the finality is much more palpable.
Pierce could be traded, while Garnett is mulling retirement.
“You know, we need more,” Rivers said. “But the key is, for us, you know, do you want to take away to get more? And that will be a decision that will be made later.”
The last time the second round of the playoffs didn’t have at least one of these two teams, the Celtics failed to make it altogether and the Lakers were bounced by the Phoenix Suns in 2007.
Ainge brought in Garnett and Ray Allen later that summer and Kupchak landed Gasol from Memphis, and the two were rekindling a decades-old rivalry in the NBA Finals, and ushering in a new era of popularity for the league, the following June.
Those days seem so long ago and far away now.