- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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MIAMI -- It hurts because they were so close.
Forget the fact that the Boston Celtics really had no business being where they were -- one win from advancing to the NBA Finals -- considering all the adversity they had to overcome this season. The fact of the matter is they were there, on the cusp of a third trip to the title round in five seasons. That close to another chance at the elusive second Larry O'Brien trophy.
But Boston's wild and rather improbable 2011-12 season ended Saturday night with an unceremonious 101-88 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals at AmericanAirlines Arena.
The Heat advance to the NBA Finals to meet the Oklahoma City Thunder for a shot at this year's trophy. Boston's future is decidedly less certain.
And maybe that adds to the hurt -- the fact that a summer of uncertainty lies ahead for Boston and, after five highly successful years, Saturday's loss might have spelled the end of the Big Three era.
"If we could have gotten this group to the Finals, it would have been fantastic for all of us," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "That's all I thought about today. Somehow let's see if we can get this group to the Finals. They deserve it with their will."
Talent defeated will Saturday. The return of Chris Bosh, along with a not-to-be-denied LeBron James, was enough to propel the Heat to wins in the final two games of the series, including Saturday's deciding Game 7.
The Celtics will look back and kick themselves. They had multiple opportunities to win this series and let it get away.
Heck, Boston even owned a double-digit lead in Saturday's game and was still out front with eight minutes to go. But in a situation eerily similar to Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Celtics looked like they simply ran out of gas while James, Bosh and the rest of the fresher-legged Heat made key plays to motor away at the end.
Rivers removed his starters in the final minute and embraced each of his veterans -- Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo -- on the sideline. He appeared to have a particularly heartfelt exchange with Garnett, who whispered something to his coach, and Rivers nodded in approval.
What was said will remain a mystery for now. Garnett left without talking to reporters, offering no clarity on his plans. Both he and Allen will be unrestricted free agents this summer, and it's unclear whether Boston will try to bring them back next season.
A great sentiment of "let's get the band back together" permeated a Celtics locker room in which players such as Keyon Dooling and Mickael Pietrus expressed a desire to return, and fifth starter Brandon Bass did the same.
But Pierce was more cryptic. After noting he would love to finish his career alongside Garnett and suggested how management might be able to add some pieces to push Boston over the top next season, he hinted at the possibility that this was it.
"Hopefully management can do something to bring [Garnett] back, maybe add some pieces to this team that we need to get over the top," Pierce said. "If not, it's been a tremendous run."
A tremendous run, but the Celtics will be left craving more. As improbable as this season was at times, Boston still put itself in position to win this series. And Rivers often notes how a team has to take advantage of every opportunity.
It hurts because next season is never guaranteed. Something the Celtics know all too well at the moment.
"We've been through a lot; we've won a lot of games," Allen said. "At the end of the season, it always feels like it's it. Up to this point, we fought hard to keep it together. So I think now there's so many emotions. This one hit me hard. We wanted it so bad."
So did the Heat. That much was captured in James' locomotive drive for a one-handed slam with 7:59 to play. Miami had been down a point but scored eight of the game's next 11 points to open a seven-point cushion with little more than six minutes to play.
Boston never got closer than five points the rest of the way. The lead reached double digits in the final three minutes before Rivers waved the white flag.
And just like that, Boston was left to ponder whether the Big Three era finally was over.
"Everything is going so fast right now, it's tough to really think about it," Pierce said. "You're more disappointed about a loss. You feel like you let your teammates down, especially when you don't accomplish your goal of winning a championship. So it's a lot of emotions right now."
Pierce was asked directly whether it felt like this was the end.
"I don't know," he said, shrugging. "I haven't really put much thought into it. We'll have to see. That's a question you'll probably have to ask management, [president of basketball operations] Danny [Ainge], Wyc Grousbeck, the owners."
Pierce acknowledged it's been a trying season. From Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox enduring season-ending heart ailments to Jermaine O'Neal and Avery Bradley suffering season-ending injuries. All the while, Boston's big four battled maladies of their own, including a sprained MCL for Pierce in the playoffs and bone spurs for Allen that kept him off the floor at the start of the postseason.
"Even though we fell short of our goal, for us to pull together, the way things went all season long, midway point under .500, and then you look here today, we're one game away from possibly playing for a championship," Pierce said. "I can't be any prouder of the guys who came and put the work in every day and grinded it out, sacrificed and did what they need to do."
Rivers admitted during the season that this probably wasn't the deepest or most talented group he's had in Boston. But these Celtics might have been the best pure team, maybe even more so than the 2008 championship squad. What this team lacked in overall talent, it made up for with intangibles, particularly the unity of the group.
All of which made the postgame locker room that much more emotional. Somber players were left to ponder the abrupt end to the season. The Celtics wanted a chance at a world title, but they also wanted two more weeks together as a team.
"My father passed away three years ago, and I haven't cried since my father passed away -- until tonight," Dooling said. "This bunch of guys, it was like a senior year of high school or something like that. It was memorable. Lifelong friendships, a lot of great moments.
"This team was very unique. We love each other, we care for each other, and, though we aren't champions this year, I think we've got hearts of champions, and that'll always keep us connected."
Maybe that's what hurts most. This team genuinely cared. These players cared about accomplishing their goals, and they cared about each other.
Just like that, it's over. And it's unlikely it'll ever be the same.
20hMatt Walks, ESPN.com