BOSTON You might have to go back to 2008 - the first year the Boston Celtics' Big Three were assembled - to recall a time when they went into the playoffs and there wasn't any talk about this being their last go-round together.
While that talk seems just as prevalent now, it has a different and more realistic feel about it now.
Kevin Garnett will be a free agent in July and there's no guarantee that he'll be back, or whether the C's will pony up the kind of money it'll take to keep him in the fold despite having significant salary cap space.
Paul Pierce has a two years remaining on his contract after this season, but the physical pounding he has taken this year has him giving some thought to retirement.
And then there's Ray Allen who no longer starts for the C's and is currently nursing a right ankle injury that could jeopardize his availability for the playoffs.
"I hope their fans really appreciate what they're about to do in the playoffs," said one NBA front-office official. "Because they're not going to see them, not this Big Three, do it again. No one expects all three of them back in Boston next season. The Celtics are clearly building for the future. As much as those guys have meant, I think all of them know that the time to move on, is probably now."
Danny Ainge, Boston's president of basketball operations, has made no secret about the C's desire to steadily improve even if it meant parting with one of the Big Three.
Allen, more than any member of the Celtics' Big Three, has been the subject of trade rumors for the past couple of years. The C's were reportedly close to shipping him out to Memphis before March's trading deadline for a deal that would have netted the Celtics O.J. Mayo.
A former Celtics player, Ainge saw first-hand the physical demise of the previous Celtic Big Three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. He tells the tale often of how the late Red Auerbach refused to trade any of them, and how he would not have been quite so hesitant if he were in Auerbach's shoes.
While it's true that Ainge has made multiple efforts in recent years to move members of the Big Three, he never struck a deal that made sense both for the Celtics now and moving forward.
And so the Big Three lives on for another playoff run with those failed deals potentially providing them just the added motivation they needed to flourish this season.
"You can't pay attention to that. That's part of the business," said Pierce, referring to trade talk. "You just gotta do your job as a professional each and every day. That's about it."
Garnett, more than any other member of the Big Three, has talked candidly about how criticism has fueled his play this season.
"I hear y'all calling me old. I hear y'all calling me older, weathered," said Garnett, who will be 36 next month. "It don't really take much to motivate me. I'm older in basketball years, but in life I'm 30-something. Some of y'all, I'm looking at your grey hairs, no hair, half hair, beautiful hair, wet hair, no comment I'm just motivated."
And it is that desire to always improve, maybe more than anything else, has been why all the trade talk and past-your-prime talk has never really stuck with this group.
"I don't think they've been distracted. That's just who they are," Ainge told CSNNE.com. "I don't think they've done anything different this year than they've done in years past. That's just who they always are and have always been. Maybe they get distracted for a moment here or there, but that's just the signature and legacy of their Hall of Fame careers. They play, and they have this resolve and they have this determination to be good."
As you watch the Celtics' progression this season, it was evident that those very qualities slowly but surely trickled down to their teammates, young and old.
Keyon Dooling is in his 12th NBA season. But when you listen to him talk about what playing with the Big Three has meant to him, you'd think he was still on his rookie contract.
"It's been life-changing for me to be around Hall of Famers, see what they do on a daily basis that makes them great," Dooling told CSNNE.com. "To get the basketball insight from them, how they see the game, the stuff that you can't get from a playbook or from a coach it's been a phenomenal experience and it'll be something that I'll be able to keep with me my whole life."
Boston's focus right now is on getting past the Atlanta Hawks, obviously.
But for guys like Mickael Pietrus, he understands that this playoff run means a lot to both the Celtics and the Big Three.
Although it hasn't been talked about much inside the locker room, all involved understand that this may be the last time Pierce, Allen and Garnett play together in the postseason.
"Right now, it doesn't mean anything. But when you win something with those guys, and they retire and all that, you'll feel like you'll feel good about yourself," Pietrus said. "I played with those guys, I enjoyed myself, we won a championship. I look forward to winning a championship with those guys."
And while at the start of the season it seemed far-fetched, the Celtics have made many into believers based on their play since the All-Star break. And a big part of that success has been the play of their Big Three.
"I continue to be impressed with who they are," Ainge said. "They're not perfect. They don't have great weeks, every week. But just to see how they dealt with their careers. They're impressive people. It's been a joy for me to be around. I've been around a lot of great players in my life. I said it in 2008, I've never seen the Hall of fame type players, at their age, prepare and approach the game the way they approach it; with the determination and work ethic. They never miss practice. They're there everyday. That was a joy to watch. And that's continued. It's 2012. They've taken more time off as their bodies have needed it, but usually it's because Doc's giving them the time off. Because Doc knows they'll practice; they'll be out there on the court. That's just who they are. They don't know any other way."
But Father Time is starting to gain ground on all of them.
Pierce missed the first three games of the season with a right heel injury, and struggled for the first few weeks of the season because of that and poor conditioning. Allen has missed nine straight games with a right ankle injury that remains a mystery.
And then there's Garnett, who has been playing at an exceptionally high level most of this season. Part of his success stems from him being moved to the center position which has created more mismatches in his favor due to his ability to stretch the floor from the perimeter.
All that said, the Celtics remain one of the more feared teams in the playoffs right now.
"We're seeing in the twilight of their career, how great they still are and they're still writing the story," Ainge said. "It's truly incredible what they've done this year. The determination, getting off to a bad start and they just fought harder and harder to be successful."
If the Celtics were to call it a season now, it would indeed make for a great story.
"We still have a lot to accomplish this year," Ainge said. "We're not done. We're not done."