It might be the last Celtics stand for the tandem of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett but they showed their class and determination as Boston humbled the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.
Age, a lack of depth on the roster and the strains of the National Basketball Association salary cap have put the Boston future of Garnett and Pierce in doubt but the gritty veterans refuse to go out quietly this postseason.
Teetering on the brink of elimination down 3-0 in their best-of-seven series, the Celtics won an overtime thriller in Boston to stay alive and followed with a 92-86 win on Wednesday to send the series back to Boston for Game Six on Friday.
The 36-year-old Garnett, in his 18th season after entering the NBA out of high school, scored 16 points and hauled down 18 rebounds in nearly 39 minutes on the floor.
Pierce, 35, who has played all 15 years of his NBA career in Boston, matched his running mate with 16 points and logged more than 44 minutes on court as the Celtics outbattled the Knicks using just seven players.
"Every game since we've been down 3-0 has been Game Seven for us," said Boston coach Doc Rivers, whose team fell behind 11-0 before clawing back for another do-or-die win.
Pierce said the fighting spirit comes from the top down.
"When it was 3-0, we could have packed it in, but this team has the will," said Pierce. "That comes from our coach, it comes from our leaders, myself and Kevin to keep going."
Another defeat in this series could also mark the last game for the Boston partnership of Pierce and Garnett.
Pierce is scheduled to make $15.3 million in the final year of a four-year, $61.3 million extension. With only $5 million of that guaranteed, the Celtics could pay it off if they choose to begin rebuilding in earnest.
The 6-foot-11 (2.11 m) Garnett, who has two years remaining on a three-year, $34 million deal, has said that if Pierce leaves Boston he could consider retirement.
Before the Miami Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh took the NBA by storm, there was the Celtics Big Three formed in 2007 when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were acquired in trades by Boston to join Paul Pierce.
That 2007-08 season, the trio quickly jelled for a 66-16 campaign and the NBA title, the record 17th in the history of the illustrious franchise but first in 22 years.
Two years later they got to the finals, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers, and last year they extended the Heat to seven games in the conference finals before losing to the eventual NBA champions.
The off-season saw the first crack in their championship foundation when sharp-shooting Allen left the Celtics to sign with Miami, while this year's hopes took a plunge with point guard Rajon Rondo suffering a torn knee ligament.
But the stout efforts of Boston's one-two punch of Pierce and Garnett have kept this series from being a sweep.
Garnett, who has been battling hip, ankle and foot pain, had been showing signs of age before coming up big in the last two games.
"Father Time is undefeated, and there's nothing you can do about it," former NBA player and television commentator Charles Barkley said about the aging of Garnett.
Pierce and Rivers made a point of saluting Garnett, who requires a long pre-game routine to stretch and prepare to play the game.
"That's what Kevin does," Pierce said.
"He's a legend in this game. He's one of the greatest players that ever played the game. You're seeing one of the great ones get challenged and what they're able to do.
"Kevin has inspired me every day I get a chance to play with him, practice with him, see his preparation. That's the inspiring part. He's been that way since we were able to obtain him and it's non-stop with him."
Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters