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Saturday, April 30, 2011
Big Threes match up in Celtics-Heat

By Peter May
ESPNBoston.com

Historians talk of the Big Three as that famous meeting in Yalta featuring Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. Automotive types talk of the day of the Big Three as meaning General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

Undoubtedly, there are other such famed triumvirates in history, but in the au courant of the National Basketball Association, there are really two such assemblages (apologies to the Lakers and Spurs).

There's the Big Three in Boston. (Or, really, Big Three II, as Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish had that sobriquet in the 1980s.) That's the VBT (the Veteran Big Three) featuring Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. It is the VBT not only because all of them are well into their 30s, but also because they've been together for four seasons.

Then there's the RBT (Rookie Big Three) in Miami, consisting of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. They are younger, twentysomethings, finishing their first year together.

Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen
Boston's Big Three came about somewhat by chance, but quickly became the core of the Celtics.

These two trios will collide in an Eastern Conference semifinal series starting Sunday that is replete with firepower and marquee attractions. The Celtics have more of the latter; in addition to their own Big Three, they have an All-Star in Rajon Rondo and, for whatever he might be worth these days, the omnipresent Shaquille O'Neal. Seven All-Stars are playing in this series, the most since 1983, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Heat have more of the former; James and Wade were among the top scorers in the NBA this season and Bosh is more than competent around the basket. The Heat had 55 games this season in which a player scored 30 or more points; 53 of them were by James, Wade and Bosh. The Celtics? They had seven -- five by Pierce and two by Allen.

The Celtics' Big Three came about by accident, and out of near despair, following the then-disastrous results of the 2007 NBA draft lottery. The Celtics statistically had an excellent shot at one of the top two picks, Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, but ended up with the fifth pick. Had they gotten what they wanted, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge would have likely drafted Durant (to whom he was leaning at the time), traded Pierce and got on with rebuilding the Celtics as Oklahoma City East.

But instead, he traded the fifth pick to Seattle in a deal for Allen. This proved fortuitous on two fronts: Allen being Allen was a terrific addition on his own, despite coming off double-ankle surgery; and the arrival of Allen also convinced Garnett to agree to a deal with Boston, a deal he had rejected prior to the Allen trade.

So the Boston trio came about by trades and, with the benefit of hindsight, good fortune in the lottery. It also helped that new Sonics general manager Sam Presti was agreeable to moving Allen for that fifth pick, which turned out to be Jeff Green, who has come full circle, back to a Boston team that drafted him but for whom he had never played. It also helped that former Minnesota GM Kevin McHale, who already had taken so much junk from Boston (Mark Blount, Marcus Banks, Ricky Davis), agreed to take on some more (Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff) to surrender Garnett. He did get Al Jefferson and Ryan Gomes, too. Neither is with Minnesota anymore, but that wasn't McHale's doing.

The Boston Big Three, Part II, had never gone farther than a conference final. They all had seen their share of All-Star Games. But Garnett had not even seen a playoff game in three years. Pierce and Allen had gone two years without a playoff check. They were hungry. They had won individual accolades. They were ready to accept and embrace "ubuntu," the African phrase which, loosely translated, means, "all for one and one for all."

The result was a 66-win regular season and a 17th championship banner for the Boston Celtics, all in their first season together. They are the last team to beat the Lakers in a playoff series (the only time in the past 14 playoff series that the Lakers haven't had home-court advantage.) An injury to Garnett prevented them from repeating. They got to Game 7 of the NBA Finals last season.

The Miami Big Three came about quite differently. It was a contrived, an agreed-to decision by the three of them to unite in 2010, when their contracts all miraculously (or so it seemed) were up. They became the NBA's first "Super Group," an old rock-and-roll phrase from the late 1960s. They came together by choice, just like Blind Faith, the original Super Group. (I know, some feel it was Cream, but I'm going with Blind Faith. It had Eric Clapton and Stevie Winwood.)

Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James
The Heat's Big Three came about in a very different way than the Celtics', but can be just as powerful.

The Miami Big Three, like the Celtics' Big Three, were ready to win. Wade was the only one of the three to have a championship ring (2006). James had led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007, where they had been swept by the Spurs. Bosh was a good player on a generally bad team in Toronto. Wade and James both had extensive playoff experience.

Their union was, needless to say, N-E-W-S. Everyone breathlessly tracked James' potential move out of Cleveland. I remember vividly all the New York writers attending Game 6 of the Boston-Cleveland series last year, convinced it would (a) be James' final game as a Cav (they were right) and (b) convinced that his next destination would be New York (they were wrong). When James finally decided to let the world in on his "decision," it was broadcast live on ESPN. Bosh had already publicly agreed to sign on with Miami.

Filling out the rest of the roster in both cases proved daunting. The Celtics had Rondo and Kendrick Perkins returning as starters, but Rondo had only one year of experience. Free agency brought them James Posey, Eddie House and, later, PJ Brown. Glen Davis arrived via the draft. Building a bench has been an ongoing concern for the Celtics to this point.

The Heat stripped their roster to get the money needed to sign James and Bosh. But the vets settled for less than the absolute max, allowing Miami to sign Mike Miller. He was hurt at the beginning of the season and played only six minutes in the Philadelphia quarterfinal series, appearing in two of the five games. Old hands Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mike Bibby start for the Heat now. Miami, like Boston, looked for hungry veterans in filling out its roster.

The Celtics introduced their Big Three in a news conference in a club room at TD Garden. It was a relatively subdued affair. After all, the team had won 24 games the year before. The Heat introduced their Big Three amid a pyrotechnic display on the floor of AmericanAirlines Arena with thousands in attendance. James promised multiple titles. Dressed in Heat garb, the three high-fived fans and each other.

They hadn't played a game to that point, skeptics noted. When they finally did, they didn't tear through the conference as the 2007-08 Celtics did. They ended up winning 58 games, second-best in the East. They have had their moments of angst and agita in a season that was perused, dissected and examined like no other team's season in NBA history. They also are undeniably good.

Now comes the first opportunity for the new RBT to dislodge the VBT. Will youth triumph over age? Or, will the veterans emerge, validating an old saw of my mother-in-law: "A new broom sweeps clean, but an old broom knows the corners."

Whoever does triumph, there still will be more work ahead. It's only the second round.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.