Ten Years Later: The Day Boston Celtics’ Dynasty Hopes Buckled

I was a seventeen-year-old staring into a thirteen-inch white Mitsubishi television propped on the dresser in my bedroom.

A Celtics fan growing up, my passion for the game (at the NBA level) was reignited by the success of Boston’s Big Three: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. My favorite player, a young Rajon Rondo, colorfully added his own dynamic. With such a fun and dominant team to support, I rarely missed watching games, even if it meant squinting at a tiny screen in my New Hampshire bedroom.

That tiny Mitsubishi was trained on TNT this particular Thursday night in mid-February, the first game back from the All-Star Break. Boston was entering a road trip, and while they sat atop the league standings, it felt as though every game was like watching history. They weren’t just the defending NBA Champions, they were absolutely dominant.

Perhaps that’s why the visual of seeing their best player, donning the dark green and black alternate jerseys, grimace in pain against the light blue backdrop of the Utah Jazz home floor was so painful to watch.

Garnett hobbled off the court in the middle of the second quarter after a routine basketball move yielded catastrophic results. His knee buckled while jumping for a lob to the rim in transition, disallowing him from getting back into the play. The visuals of Garnett hurriedly exiting the floor and to the tunnel in Salt Lake City are burned into the psyches of Celtics fans:

Even immediately following the injury there was some optimism that Garnett would be able to return quickly. Initial diagnoses weren’t incredibly disastrous: A strained tendon in the right knee sidelined the Big Ticket for 13 games, a full month on the calendar. Before the injury, Garnett was posting his typically solid numbers while anchoring a Celtics team that was 41-11 at the All-Star Break: 16.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.2 blocks, and 53 percent from the field in just over 32 minutes a night.

Boston promptly went 7-6 in the thirteen games KG missed, falling back to earth and within striking range of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top seed in the East. The C’s dropped some uncharacteristic games during that stretch, including a 93-91 contest with the Los Angeles Clippers, one of the three worst teams in the league that season.

Garnett was never the same.

From October 2009-2012, his final four years in the green-and-white, Garnett’s per game averages fell: 14.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 0.9 blocks on 51 percent shooting and a mere 12 attempts. Prior to the injury? His first two years saw 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds, three assists, 1.2 blocks on 13.5 attempts. (And even that was a significant, intentional lowering of the magnificent stat lines and outsized burden we saw during his Minnesota Timberwolves days.)

Was Garnett’s knee the unofficial end of a Boston Celtics dynasty? Did the dynasty ever take off to its fullest extent? (If you can even call a one-title, two-appearance team a dynasty.)

This was the original superteam, albeit nowhere near the most successful.

February 19 2009: Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett (5) is injured in the second quarter of the game. The Utah Jazz defeated the Boston Celtics 90-85 at the Energy Solutions Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Garnett’s return to the lineup during that 2009 season came on March 20th. Tim Duncan, the litmus test for all NBA big men, would be the immediate trial run for KG’s preparedness down the stretch. 45-22 at the time, the Spurs hosted the 51-18 Celtics in what many thought could be a Finals preview.

While getting Garnett back before this key regular season game enthused the fanbase, Doc Rivers was protective of his star, refusing to let KG touch the floor in the second or fourth quarters as the Celts eased him back into game action. He held up well in his limited action, draining his final five shots and hauling in four rebounds while finishing a plus-one on the night. Those 14 minutes and 39 seconds were encouraging enough and made sweeter when the C’s squeaked out an 80-77 victory on the road, thanks in large part to San Antonio missing their final six free throws.

The night before facing San Antonio, the Celts clinched the Atlantic Division Title and a playoff berth after a grueling overtime victory over the Miami Heat. They could take their time easing Garnett back into the lineup, but the need for game action and physical reps meant sitting him the entire thirty days before the postseason wasn’t an option, either.

“We basically sat around and counted all the practice days before playoffs. It’s not a lot of them,” Rivers told ESPN. “And [playing him limited minutes] is a solution.”

Garnett immediately started playing on back-to-back nights, and even three games in four nights. All were throttled back on a minutes limit, and all three ended in Celtic victories.

The fourth game was the backbreaker, although nobody knew it at the time.

Facing another championship contender in the Orlando Magic, Rivers continued adhering to the plan: Play Garnett for spurts in the first and third quarters, avoid heavy minutes or facing off with Dwight Howard for long stretches. Orlando was two game behind Boston in the standings, and the thoughts of pushing Garnett beyond his limitations for the sake of securing home-court advantage undoubtedly seeped into the minds of many. Apparently, that sentiment wasn’t prevalent in the locker room:

“Our guys don’t care about [home court]. They want to get healthy,” said Rivers. “And when we get healthy, we’re willing to lace up against anybody.”

Rivers demonstrated great restraint by playing Garnett only sixteen-and-a-half minutes that night, not even subbing him back in for the final minutes of the game. Orlando won by two, but it proved to be Garnett’s final game of the season.

The power forward tweaked his knee once again on a non-contact play, and the Celtics held him out of the lineup for precautionary reasons:

Promises of playing through the end of the regular season to become acclimated for the playoffs never materialized. A plan to dust KG off in those final four contests dwindled one-by-one to nothing. Just at the April 18th conclusion of the regular season and with a first-round matchup against the Chicago Bulls on deck, the Celtics announced Garnett might miss the entire postseason.

“It’s not official that he’s out for the entire playoffs, but it’s official as far as I’m concerned,” Doc Rivers said on the news, officially breaking to the rest of the world.

Despite winning eight of their final nine regular season games, these Celtics felt incredibly vulnerable without their heart and soul. Boston narrowly defeated the upstart Chicago Bulls in a feisty seven-game series, then saw Orlando waiting in the next round. The Magic went on to defeat them in a thrilling seven-game Eastern Conference Semifinals that came down to a Game 7 rout.

The next season, the Celtics were back to their winning 50 games, breezing through the Eastern Conference Playoffs without a seven-game series and four wins away from the promise land. The narrative shifted once again towards the dynastic nature of this iteration.

This was once again the team of destiny.

Facing off once again with the rival Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, the Celtics were primed for another banner before starting center Kendrick Perkins tore his ACL in Game 6 of the Finals:

Boston ended up losing in Game 7 by four, narrowly missing its second title in three years.

Perkins returned for only twelve games in 2010-11 before Danny Ainge shipped him and Nate Robinson to the Oklahoma City Thunder at the trade deadline. In return, the Celtics took on Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic and a first-round pick.

But the dynasty window already felt over at the tail end of that season, with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh taking the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals and thoroughly dismantling the Celtics in the process. As LeBron’s ascent to the throne finally took place on a championship level, the C’s days as a frontrunner for the title were gone.

A large pocket of fans blamed Ainge for pulling the trigger on the Perkins trade. The league wasn’t yet headed towards the space-and-pace offenses we see today for at least a few more seasons; a Garnett and Perkins tandem up front surely could have continued to work. But the gamble on a young talent like Jeff Green, as well as a future first-round pick, was too much to pass up for a player like Perkinson an expiring deal and struggling through negotiations with the team.

Already 33 years old and playing in his 15th NBA season, Garnett benefitted from moving to the center spot, and a lineup with KG at the 5 was better built to combat the new enemy in Miami.

Boston had also previously signed Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal to anchor the center spot in Perk’s absence. His return from injury sooner than expected left a logjam up front. From almost every angle, that deal is defensible by today’s standards.

Still, the move was met with skepticism at the time of the trade, both for Perkins’ on-court utility and off-court charm. He was the backbone of the locker room, a great teammate and one-half of the toughest frontcourt in the league. That move signals to many the unofficial end of the Big Three era in Boston.

After winning the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals, Rivers flashed his confidence in his group.

“This starting five has never lost a series, ever,” Rivers said. “We believed that coming into the season, and we just kept believing.”

With Perkins’ Game Six injury a few weeks later and the impromptu mid-season trade in 2011, that quote still rings true.

Garnett never was the same player after that knee tweak. A tenacious defender spirited competitor, and unrivaled teammate, he was the backbone of the aspirant Celtics dynasty. They went as he went. Paul Pierce recognizes how great those Celtics teams could have been if Garnett never got hurt.

“If Kevin was healthy, we probably would have won 70 games,” said Pierce years later.

I’ll never forget the cause for concern that Thursday night in Salt Lake City: The brimming optimism that Garnett’s injury was less than serious. The hope that the Celtics would quickly regain their form. They never found the rings that validate a dynasty, nor the MVP-caliber play from their former MVP.

If you’re a Celtics fan, pour one out on February 19th. It’s a sad anniversary indeed.