The 2011-12 season was a strange time in the NBA. The lockout had shortened the regular season to a mere 66 games, LeBron James was still labeled as a perennial choker who couldn’t lead a team to a championship, and the Boston Celtics Big Three era was in it’s twilight.
In the four years since the squads only title win, they went from mighty champions to scrappy underdogs laden with infighting and drama. The craziest part of all of it? They actually kind of made it work.
Boston finished the year with the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference. They were behind the Derrick Rose led Bulls, The Heat who were in the second year of their respective Big Three Era, and a gritty Pacers team. They went 39-27. A pretty average season by every measure.
When it came time for the playoffs, expectations weren’t particularly high for the C’s. Why would they be? Everyone knew it was going to be the Heat or the Bulls coming out of the East. Celtics time was long over.
In the first round, Boston took care of the Hawks in a close six games. That wasn’t the story coming out of the quarterfinal match-ups though, as Derrick Rose, the Crown Prince of the NBA, tore his achillies playing the 76ers and Philly dispatched Chicago in six games. This, while extremely unfortunate for Rose, the Bulls, and the NBA, left the door open a crack for the old, wily Celtics.
The second round came and it was now the Celtics turn to take on the 8th-seeded 76ers. Philly had an interesting team that year as well. Pretty impressive cast of characters including Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday, and Evan Turner. (Jury was still out on Turner’s bust-status.) Super young and just before the dawn of “The Process.” I think if the season was 82 games, this Sixers team would have run Boston off the floor just because of pure exhaustion on the Celtics part. But, even though it went seven games, the veterans won the series and the C’s would move on to the Eastern Conference Finals.
In the ECF, the dreaded Miami Heat were waiting for them, and they were looking for redemption after being embarrassed by the Mavericks in the Finals a year prior. And they played like it in the first two games as, despite a 44-10-8 game from Rajon Rondo in Game 2, Miami burst out to a 2-0 series lead.
The tide started to shift in a big way when the Celtics returned to Boston. They had a convincing Game 3 win and a gutsy OT win in Game 4. All the sudden, the Celtics had all the momentum in the world. If they could just take Game 5 in Miami, they would return to their home court with a chance to clinch a finals appearance for the third time in five years. And take game five they did with this absolutely LUDICROUS Paul Pierce shot that really doesn’t get talked about enough:
When Pierce sunk that shot everything was perfect. The Celtics were going to win in the Garden and go to the Finals. They’d face an inexperienced Thunder team and they would win.
Then Game 6 happened. Rather, LeBron James happened.
With his back against the wall and team on the brink of elimination and embarrassment, LeBron went off.
For my money it’s the most clutch, impressive performance in James’ career, maybe anyone’s career. His legacy was on the line and he showed up.
The Heat won Game 6 in Boston. They broke the Celtics’ spirit and won Game 7 pretty easily. (Despite a 22-14-10 performance from Rondo. It was disgusting how good he was in those playoffs.) Boston was eliminated and the Big Three was terminated.
This team is fascinating to me on so many levels. On the surface, they were a team that really wasn’t supposed to be there, but when they got there, they didn’t cower. They didn’t fear LeBron. I’m not sure if Pierce or KG even respected him at that point. They took the 2011-12 Miami Heat, arguably one of the best teams ever with one of the best players ever in his prime, to their complete and total limit.
Beneath that was so much drama. There was the obvious stuff that we knew at the time, like Ray Allen being pissed he was benched for a very young Avery Bradley. Beyond that, there were even deeper things we learned about after the fact, like the beef between Rondo and Allen, which if you don’t know the details of it, it’s worth the Google search. The team was kind of falling apart at the seams, but they pulled it together and made an impressive playoff run.
Make no mistake, at the end of the day the 2011-12 Celtics were aging Eastern Conference runners-up. But there was something inherently endearing about them. Maybe it was because they overcame so much. Maybe it was because they were going against the Heat, the villains of the NBA at the time. Maybe it was just plain nostalgia. They used every bit of gas the Big Three had left in them, and they almost got it done.
Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
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