If it seems like the Celtics' faithful has been preparing for the inevitable breakup of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen for a while, it is because, from the very beginning, the trio was never meant to be permanent. Boston was supposed to be a way station for the All-Stars, a place to collect an elusive championship ring before either moving on to another city or calling it a career.
Five years later, the brief affair has become a successful marriage, with the Celtics once again chasing a title. But more than any previous season, there is a growing sense that this "last year" could truly be the last hurrah for the eventual Hall of Fame collective.
"We realized that [was a possibility] from day one when we came in for preseason, training camp," Pierce said. "I think pretty much the last couple years we were feeling like that. The influence is to try to win another championship, regardless of if this is going to be our last time together. Who knows what the future's going to hold for all of us?"
The Celtics enter Friday's Game 4 with a 2-1 lead over the Sixers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Sixers are a team still learning to win, and every game in the playoffs, even the losses, are something for them to build on.
The Celtics are only concerned with building toward one thing: a championship, this year. It is uncertain how many more chances they will have.
"With KG in the last year of his contract, Ray in the last year of his contract, trade speculation that's been going on, there's definitely a huge sense of urgency with us," Pierce said.
The bulk of this sort of talk has come from Pierce, who has had been reflective on occasion this season. He pondered retirement, or at least addressed the possibility, and has made references to approaching this season as his last with Garnett and Allen.
Garnett and Allen have been less prone to bring up the possibility of their tenures with the Celtics nearing an end. Doing so would be more uncomfortable for them, of course, given that both will have decisions to make when their contracts expire at the end of this season. It is also in neither player's nature to really consider such things, though. Garnett's mentality seldom extends beyond the next play, while Allen said he ceased worrying about the future as soon as he was traded by the Bucks to the Sonics in 2003.
"I have the same feeling always," Allen said. "Paul's never been traded before, so he's always been in this situation. He's always been at home here. Once I got traded the first time, I always felt like I'd never really get comfortable. Always make sure you fight for what you know you want and to be in a great situation. That's what we've done while we've been here this whole time. You never know what can happen at the end of the season, after every game, you're always dealing with different scenarios."
Even so, all three players are aware of the situation, although it is a distant concern. If Allen were worried about his contract status entering the summer, he probably would not be risking extensive injury by playing with bone spurs in his right ankle. If Garnett intended to retire at the end of this season, he would walk away while playing some of the best basketball of his life.
Contracts tend to take a backseat when a championship seems to be within reach.
"The focus right now is the playoffs," Garnett said. "I haven't really given that much thought, to be honest."
This could be the last "last year," or the second-to-last year, or the last year before the Big Three transition into supplementary roles on a team led by Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley and Jeff Green. The possibilities are numerous, and while it may be entertaining for fans to play the role of fantasy general manager, the players are hardly obsessing over their futures.
"I don't worry about it," Allen said. "I'm never focused on it. Even last year, the year before, the same things were mentioned, so now it's just like we have an opportunity before us and you just have to not worry about tomorrow and focus on the present, because there's a lot happening in our present."
Maybe an era is nearing an end, but for now the Celtics are simply preoccupied with extending that era for one more playoff round.
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