Larry Bird — president of basketball operations for a Pacers team that thoroughly outhustled, outshot and outplayed the Celtics on Saturday night en route to a 113-104 victory — had nothing but positive things to say about the current state of the C's, a team he carried to three NBA championships in his 14 seasons.
Bird was the leader of the previous generation's Big Three — along with Kevin McHale scoring down low and Robert Parish crashing the boards — which carried the Celtics in the 1980s. Larry Legend has three rings; Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have just one. But according to the older, wiser Bird, the next generation still has plenty left.
"Well, they’ve stayed pretty healthy," he told the Boston Herald this weekend. "We got to the Finals five times in a short period of time, and I always said that was a curse really because we never had time to recover. We’d go right back into the season. I played two years of playoff basketball, and I knew that was going to catch up sooner or later."
Pierce, Garnett and Allen spent the first decade of their careers as relative failures in the NBA in terms of team success. Pierce reached the Eastern Conference finals just once before 2008, making it there with a 2002 Celtics team that came out flat and lost to New Jersey in six games. Garnett only once made it out of the first round in Minnesota, finally reaching the Western finals in 2004 before the Lakers squashed KG's Timberwolves. Allen had the most success of the three, getting past the first round with both Milwaukee and Seattle, but even he never sniffed the NBA finals.
The silver lining? Ask Bird, and he'll tell you that the Celtics are benefiting from the new Big Three getting all that May and June rest earlier in their careers. Not everyone can be superhuman like Kobe Bryant, playing 208 games plus the Olympics in 21 months between 2007 and 2009. Even freakishly talented basketball players have limits to what their bodies can do.
There's nothing like postseason basketball. There's no substitute for it. The playoffs require you to hustle up and down the floor, defend every single possession and kill yourself for rebounds. It's physically taxing on a level unlike anything else in sports.
And Pierce, Garnett and Allen spent a decade doing very little of it. They may all be between 32 and 34 years old now, but they play younger.
We've grown to almost take for granted what Paul Pierce does on the floor every night. He's scored in double figures in every game this season. He's a constant presence on defense and a constant force on the glass. He's the perfect leader for a championship team.
Garnett is back and better than ever. His commitment to defense and rebounding gives the Celtics the identity that won them a championship. Allen is solid as always in a supporting role, knocking down shots whenever necessary.
None of these three players is Larry Bird. None is seriously in the conversation as one of the five or 10 best players ever to play the game. But together, the three of them have changed basketball culture in Boston. They've altered the course of the franchise's history.
And if Bird is correct, they've still got plenty left in the tank.
Greatness is measured by basketball historians using one metric only: championships. Bill Russell won 11. Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six each. A trio of modern-day NBA legends — Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan — have each won four.
The Celtics' modern Big Three has a long way to go before entering that pantheon. They may never get there.
But they have a shot. That much is certain — after all, they have an endorsement from one of the all-time greats. That, like a championship ring itself, is something that can never be taken away.