By Rich Levine
MIAMI On Wednesday morning, at Celtics shoot around, Doc Rivers was asked a question about Shaquille ONeal.
No, of course not. After all, since the playoffs began, questions about ONeal had become as commonplace as a Dwyane Wade free throw attempt.
But this was different.
In this case, it wasnt the typical Will he or wont he play? Shaq-related question that Rivers was accustomed to. In fact, hed already all but ruled ONeal out for that nights game with the Heat. Instead, the question was about Shaqs long-term future. With his Achilles showing no signs of healing, and the big man certainly not getting any younger, had we seen the last of ONeal?
Was he ready to hang them up?
I think it's too early to even talk about it, Rivers said. I've learned, personally, you never try to make any decision during the heat of the battle. Emotionally, you're always going to make the wrong choice.
A mere 12 hours later, in the heat of battle, an emotional Rivers stepped to the post-game podium and was asked about his own future . . .
Well get back to that in a second.
Heading into Game 5 with the Heat, Celtics fans biggest fear wasnt that their team might lose. In fact, all things considered, that was probably the expectation.
Instead, the nightmare that hung over the city was what that loss might represent.
Not only the end of one of the most schizophrenic and emotional seasons in franchise history, but also, the end of an era.
The end of these Celtics. The team that delivered Bostons first basketball title in 22 years, that remained in contention for the last four, and that (aside for a few apathetic stretches) brought Celtic Pride back from the dead and inspired a new generation of fans.
With a loss, there would be questions. Big questions, and were not talking about Shaq or even Glen Davis. Or, more importantly, Kevin Garnett, who looked especially worn down towards the end of the season and subtly hinted at retirement a few times over its course. And also, Ray Allen, who has an option for next season. While hed love to stay in Boston, he'd also love to win, and would have to listen if the Celtics situation dissipated and the right opportunity came along.
But of all the questions, much like last summer, there would be none more important than Doc Rivers.
While these Celtics will always be remembered as the second coming of The Big Three, now more than ever, these Celtics are defined by the Big One. Rivers was originally looked upon as merely the lucky guy who just happened to be around when this super team was assembled, but in the four years since, hes become the glue that holds them together. Hes the only one these Celtics want to play for. The only guy theyre comfortable calling coach. And there's a lot of indecision surrounding his future: The fact that he almost walked away last year, has admitted a desire to take some time off from coaching, and hasnt signed an extension for next season. A loss on Wednesday in Miami would once again throw Celtics Nation into that state of limbo that couldn't be remedied until Rivers announced his intentions.
And as the Cs walked off the court, after dropping a 97-87 decision to Miami, thats where everyone stood. Upset over the loss, for sure, but just as uneasy over what would come next. Where everyone would go, what everyone would do.
That is, until Rivers took the podium, mere minutes after one of the most emotional losses of his career, and was asked about his future:
Im leaning heavily towards coming back, he said. I havent made that decision, but I can tell you I probably will. Ive kind of come to that over the last couple of weeks. Im a Celtic and I love our guys. I want to win again here, and Im competitive as hell. I can tell you that is where I am today, tomorrow I may change my mind, but thats where I am today.
And suddenly, the loss didnt hurt quite as badly. The present still burned, but the future didnt look quite as bleak. Now, maybe the Celtics still had one more run . . .
Or maybe Rivers let his emotions get the best of him.
Either way, over the next few weeks, months or however long it takes for Doc to make his final decision on where he and the Celtics will go from here, there will be a lot of people who will come out and claim that they know what he should, could or will do, but when it comes down to it, no one knows better than Rivers himself.
And in this case, unlike all those others, hopefully he'll decide that the emotional choice is also the right one.