BOSTON -- They were what they've always been during the Big Three era: valiant, stubborn, proud, unrelenting.
The Boston Celtics have embraced that role with fervor, endearing themselves to us because of their grit, their resolve, their belief in one another.
There's only one problem: It no longer wins them championships, only our admiration in defeat.
This time, with Allen gone to swim with the fishes, Rondo shelved with a torn ACL and Kevin Garnett hampered by an array of excruciating injuries, Boston mounted one more inspired comeback and ripped off an astounding 20-0 fourth-quarter run in Friday night's Game 6, only to suffer a heartbreaking loss to a younger, deeper, more talented New York Knicks team on their own parquet.
Thus, it's the flawed Knickerbockers who advance to play the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals on Sunday afternoon, while the Celtics go home in the first round of the postseason for the first time since KG arrived in 2007, wondering what changes are coming.
If this does, in fact, signify the end of the Paul Pierce era in Boston, then it transpired just as Red Auerbach so famously decreed many years ago.
The legendary Celtics patriarch said, "Nine out of 10 great players finish their careers ungraciously."
Pierce is a future Hall of Famer, one of the most prolific and celebrated Celtics ever. He has been a passionate and emotional captain, a perennial All-Star who hit some of the biggest shots of the New Big Three era. He has an NBA ring and a Finals MVP trophy to prove it.
Yet this season, he came to symbolize the slow, yet steady, demise of the core of this ballclub.
Pierce slogged through a nightmarish season finale in which he could not establish any rhythm, tempo or momentum. He missed 14 of the 18 shots he launched, drained just one of his nine three-pointers and turned the ball over five times. Throughout this series, New York's trapping pressure forced him into multiple miscues.
It was, at times, uncomfortable to watch.
"I felt bad," coach Doc Rivers admitted. "You go through so many emotions [watching] on the floor.
"I'm down thinking about Paul's emotions out there, because [you know] this is not the game he wanted.
"We don't know how many more years we have left with them [Pierce and KG] in the league. You always want it to be perfect for them."
The Celtics have a myriad of decisions to make in the weeks ahead. It's clear they cannot continue as constituted, a fact both Rivers and Garnett acknowledged in their postgame assessments.
The Celtics are over the cap and will have to make some hard, cold decisions to change their fortune. The obvious target is Pierce, whom they can attempt to trade, buy out for $5 million, or assign the amnesty tag. Pierce has expressed a desire to stay in a Celtics uniform his entire career but conceded a few days ago that one way he might retire here is to return after a stint elsewhere, sign a one-day contract with Boston, then call it quits.
"A lot of emotions right now," a somber Pierce said following the game. "You have a lot of thoughts going through your head, what you could have done to keep the season going."
Pierce was unwilling to speculate about next season, deflecting those questions to Celtics boss Danny Ainge.
There is, of course, the possibility the Celtics hang onto Pierce for part of the 2013-14 season, then deal him at the trading deadline when activity is at its peak. There is no question Pierce could be a valuable addition to a contending team that needs a scorer off the bench.
But the days of both Pierce and KG toiling 30-plus minutes a night need to end. They deserve better, and the Celtics need to move on.
The team's attempt at rebuilding on the fly produced mixed results. Injuries decimated the roster and forced the Celtics to scrap their plan of weaning the team off leaning on Pierce and Garnett as primary scorers.
While a nucleus of Rondo (providing he's able to start the season, which is not a guarantee), Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley, Jason Terry and Brandon Bass has promise, the obvious void left by Pierce and KG would be cavernous should things unfold that way.
While Rivers made it clear he has no inkling what the plan is moving forward -- "Danny has already worked on stuff; he knows never to show me. I don't want to hear it, I don't want to see it, I don't want to know anything" -- he sounded reflective when discussing the two players who delivered his one and only NBA title.
"Listen," Rivers said, "we live in a day and time where guys are changing teams like socks. And Paul has chosen to stay here throughout his career, when he clearly had all rights to leave. And he chose to stay. So I have so much respect for him, for that."
Rivers became emotional when discussing Garnett and the pain he endured while fighting off injuries to his ankles, his hip (a "minor" injury that was aggravated in Game 4) and at least one other undisclosed ailment.
"KG is the best," Rivers said. "Just the best. His knowledge is amazing. He's what, 37? And he's still one of the best in the league.
"He's different. Different than any star I've ever been around. You can't take him for granted, and we never ever have."
Garnett reiterated Friday night his future might be tied to what the Celtics decide to do regarding Pierce. He said his coach pulled the two of them aside at the end of the game and "all three of us agreed to speak later. Too emotional."
Team sources said KG might undergo offseason surgery to shave down the bone spurs in his ankles, an operation that is not viewed as a major procedure. Two of his teammates privately speculated he is considering retirement.
"I have no clue," Doc admitted. "I was positive last year [he was coming back]. I'm not as sure this year."
The spirited finish of Game 6 might lead some to become sentimental about keeping the veterans intact next season, but the reality is more closely aligned with what happened through three quarters that left them down by as much as 26 points.
In the matter of the actual Game 6, it was almost over as soon as it started.
The Celtics resembled an older, fatigued basketball team that left a little too much on the court when they won Game 5 with a seven-man rotation.
The lone bright spot in the first half was the dinged-up, wire-thin KG, who attacked this game as if it was his last.
Boston trailed 32-16 with six minutes until halftime, and the combined shooting effort of their starters minus Garnett was -- are you ready for this? -- 1-for-19.
That kind of offensive ineptitude is beyond comprehension. So is scoring 27 points in two quarters of a professional basketball game. This might be a practical moment to revisit the impact of the absence of Rondo, but the Celtics' problems are far more complicated than that.
With the Knicks drilling 3-pointers at a 43 percent clip and once again punishing Boston on the offensive glass (a 15-5 edge there), the Celtics found themselves down 75-49 with 9½ minutes to play.
They were headed for a grim, joyless finish, but Bradley salvaged their pride -- and his own catastrophic postseason performance -- by finally submitting the whirling, frenetic, freewheeling defensive pressure that had defined him for much of the regular season.
It began with a perimeter jumper, one, Bradley said, that "gave me just a little bit of confidence," then continued with a steal and a layup, then another steal, then a drive to the hoop, and, all of a sudden, the Knicks were imploding and Boston was charging back.
Bradley's resurgence salvaged his psyche from what was an otherwise punishing series. He vowed to spend all summer in the gym working on his ballhandling and passing but not before he gave his surgically repaired shoulders, which he admitted in the aftermath of Game 6 have been bothering him, a little rest. He conceded there has been talk within the locker room about major changes next season.
"It's a weird feeling," he said. "Whatever happens, I wish everyone the best."
They deserve that. Each of them. Paul Pierce deserves a chance at one more ring. KG, too.
It won't happen here.
The window is finally -- and irrevocably -- shut.