BOSTON -- The stands had begun to empty, the game was lost and TD Garden was maybe half-full (or half-empty, depending on whether or not you are an Eeyore) when the chant began: "Let's go, Celtics!"
The chanters kept it up right until the final horn of Game 6. They were clearly trying to start the ball rolling for Saturday night's Game 7 in Miami, or so it seemed. But here's what else they might have been doing: saying goodbye.
That was my thought, anyway, as I watched them cheer on a team that had been embarrassed on its own floor, blowing a chance to advance to the NBA Finals. Yes, there is another chance in Game 7 -- and that was the Celtics' mantra following Game 6 -- but we all have to realize and recognize that we may have seen the last of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett wearing the green and white in Boston. The two are in the final year of their respective contracts and the economics of the time make it highly unlikely both will be back.
Neither player wanted to go there after Thursday night's loss and both went out of their way to salute the fans who remained to the bitter end. There is still another game and, given the way this series has gone, can you rule out anything Saturday night? You can get whiplash trying to figure out this one.
Writing the obit for the Second Big Three has been almost a cottage industry over the past three years. They were supposedly on their last run in 2010, but then a completely unexpected playoff burst made it feasible to bring Allen back. They looked to be done after last season's playoff loss to Miami, partly due to the strong sentiment at the time that there wouldn't be an NBA season in 2011-12.
When there was a season, one that began on Christmas Day, Garnett was out of shape. Allen battled ankle injuries and was supposedly all but traded to Memphis. There was another report that Paul Pierce was offered to New Jersey. But when the dust cleared on March 16, they were still all here.
As was the case in 2010, the Celtics embarked on yet another implausible playoff run. They looked in good shape for another berth in the NBA Finals (the third in five years for this crew) before getting crushed Thursday.
Now the Celtics have to win in Miami -- again -- if they want to keep it going. Could it happen? Sure it could. According to the stats folks at the Elias Sports Bureau, teams that lost Game 6 at home with 3-2 series leads are 11-18 in Game 7. That's a lot better than I would have thought.
Just this year, the Los Angeles Clippers, leading 3-2, lost Game 6 at home in their first-round series against Memphis. They recovered to win Game 7 on the road. LeBron James himself might remember that his 2006 Cavaliers led the Pistons 3-2 before dropping Game 6 at home and then getting drubbed in Game 7, scoring only 61 points. (He got revenge the next year in big way.)
So it can happen. The 1974 Celtics are one of those 11 teams that dropped Game 6 at home and won Game 7 on the road. This came in the NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, a weird series in which the road team won five times, including the final four games.
"We lost Game 6 on a great play by a great player," said Tom Heinsohn, the coach of the 1974 Celtics, referring to a sky hook from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that enabled the Bucks to win 102-101 in double-overtime.
"Just like this guy," he said, referring to James.
There was doom and gloom everywhere in Boston following the heart-breaker. Fans had circled the court and were preparing to storm the parquet when Abdul-Jabbar drove a dagger through their collective hearts.
"We didn't get upset. We didn't get down," Heinsohn said. "We sat around the next day and decided we were going to do something we hadn't done all series, or anytime we played them. We were going to double-team Kareem and make Cornell Warner beat us. I wasn't all that crazy about it, but it caught them by surprise and it worked. We got up big early and we coasted."
Final score, Boston 102, Milwaukee 87.
Abdul-Jabbar averaged 33.7 points over the first six games. He finished with 26 in Game 7. It marked the last time the Bucks advanced to the NBA Finals.
Does Doc Rivers have any kind of surprise in store for the redoubtable James? He could switch the traps he has been using on Dwyane Wade and make James give up the ball. But that might actually be counter-productive because James is a terrific passer and, well, Wade and the improving Chris Bosh aren't exactly Cornell Warner.
Rivers, on a conference call Friday, said he was open to changing defensive schemes if James erupted again, but quickly added, "We have to do it our way, first, and better. There's a better defense we can play -- the one we always play. But if we have to do something else, we'll do it."
The Celtics will stay on message. They will try to be more forceful and more focused. They've played well enough to win three times in this series. But they need one more to keep the Big Three going for yet another playoff series and to send James packing for the third time in the last five years.
If it doesn't happen, the lasting memory for the players who will not be back next season might not be the 19-point drubbing they absorbed, an opportunity lost. No, it might well be the bellowing from the well-wishers in the stands.
Yes, they want to keep it going, too.
But they also wanted to say something else: Thanks for five great years. It was one special ride.