Celtics travel different path to Finals

When Danny Ainge mortgaged the future three years ago to add Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, there was a window that came along with the price-tag of adding veterans entering the twilight of their careers.

Two years, maybe three max.

It took just one to hang the 17th banner in franchise history, but the window appeared to be closing fast in the wake of a broken-down Garnett.

Even though he didn't quite resemble the KG of old, the Celtics jumped out to a 23-5 start this season and it had Boston fans thinking maybe another title with the aging Big Three wasn't out of the question.

But the Celtics became a .500 team the rest of the way.

They went 27-27.

Garnett was mediocre, Allen's pure jump shot came and went as quickly as the unpredictable Boston weather, Ainge's free-agent acquisition of Rasheed Wallace was a complete mess and the Celtics' bench was virtually non-existent.

This team would be fortunate to get out of the first round against D-Wade and the red-hot Miami Heat in the first round.

Even if they found a way to somehow find their early-season magic, LeBron would turn the Celtics into road kill.

Instead, Boston took care of Wade, LeBron and Orlando's Dwight Howard on Friday night, 96-84, in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.

"For me, it wasn't a question of whether we had the talent," Ainge said after the Celtics booked their second appearance in the NBA Finals in the past three years. "The question was whether we were going to get healthy."

"This starting five has never lost a series," Rivers said after the victory. "Never."

But setting the table for this year's postseason took a different approach than in 2008.

Ainge and Celtics coach Doc Rivers had ongoing discussions throughout the season on what to do with the Aging Three.

Allen is nearly 35 years old, Garnett just turned 34 and Pierce is the young pup of the group and will turn 33 in October.

"That was the number one thing we discussed all year," Ainge said. "Rest."

Instead of prioritizing home-court advantage - as the Boston brass did three years ago when the Celtics won the NBA title - minute restrictions won out.

"It was tough," Rivers said. ``But we weren't going to win unhealthy."

Garnett never once logged more than 35 minutes in a regular-season game as opposed to going over the 35-minute mark in one out of every three games back in 2007-08.

Pierce averaged a shade more than 30 minutes per game in March while Allen was at 31.3 minutes in 17 games that month.

"It wasn't about us going out there and trying to win every game at the beginning," Pierce said. "It was about being healthy."

Pierce finished with 31 points and 13 boards, Allen added 20 points and Garnett finished with 10 points and five boards.

That's 61 points out of the Aging Three.

Rajon Rondo scored 14 points and had six assists while battling a back injury. And while the Celtics' newest star was lying on the floor in the second quarter, his replacement, seldom-used midseason acquisition Nate Robinson, may have been the savior.

Robinson scored 13 points within a six-minute span that helped give the Celtics a comfortable 55-42 halftime lead that was never in question the rest of the way.

Now the Celtics will wait and see whether they will face the Los Angeles Lakers again with an NBA title on the line. Boston, with a healthy Garnett, knocked off Kobe Bryant and the Lakers two years ago.

However, Los Angeles has the title of defending champs after knocking off Orlando in five games last season.

Pierce, Allen and Garnett - each known as terrific individuals who couldn't win when they came together in Boston - now embark on an opportunity to put themselves among the elite with a franchise that has won 17 world titles.

They won't ever come close to touching Bill Russell's astounding 11 NBA crowns or even Bob Cousy's half-dozen titles, but another series victory would mean this group would stand just one shy of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale.

Not bad for a trio that had the loser tag hanging over their heads just a few years ago.

"There's no question that winning another title would put them in a different category," said Ainge, who was a part of championship teams in 1984 and 1986. "A lot of guys have won one."

That tiny crack has continued to widen and this group could wind up with a pair.