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The Celtics are dead, long live the Celtics

The Celtics [1] are dead, long live the Celtics.

The Knicks hosted their funeral on Wednesday, and the zombie C’s crawled out of their graves to live one more game. Then, they buried themselves alive in the first three quarters of Game 6, and nearly lived to tell about it. Grit and balls. Heart of a champion. #BostonStrong. All of it was on display amid a 20-0 run over four fourth-quarter minutes that nobody would’ve believed if the 18,624 fans filling the Garden hadn’t watched it unfold.

As Knicks guard Iman Shumpert said after an 88-80 win that finally laid these C’s to rest, “It felt like it wasn’t real.”

Only this time the ghosts of Celtics past weren’t good enough. Not without Rajon Rondo [2]. Not on Paul Pierce [3] and Kevin Garnett [4] alone. Not anymore. So, what now? Where do these old, tired, stubborn Celtics go from here?

“Gotta love the heart of a champion,” said Celtics guard Jason Terry [5]. “We hung in there tonight — to get down 20 in the fourth quarter, battle back — but you could see it: We just didn’t have enough gas in the tank.”

Barring a trade, Terry will be back next season at age 36. As will the under-30 crowd of Brandon Bass [6], Avery Bradley [7], Jeff Green [8] and Courtney Lee [9]. Rondo and Jared Sullinger should be ready for training camp. But none of that matters without Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers [10]. Without them, they’re in NBA purgatory.

“If I had a wish, everybody would be back — healthy, the way we started,” said Green. “Everybody healthy. We battled all season with the injuries, guys getting hurt, guys in and out of the lineup. A lot of adversity we went through. If I had one wish for next year it’s that everybody is back. Healthy. We’d have our full roster.”

And why the hell not? Name one player the Celtics would either trade for or sign this offseason that would hasten the rebuilding phase. While you’re stewing on that one, consider also Pierce and Garnett mean a heck of a lot more in Boston than anywhere else. They learned that when nobody bit on them as trade bait at the deadline.

Doc’s not going anywhere. Basketball is in his blood, and he has 21 million reasons over the next three seasons to remain as coach. “I can’t make that decision right now,” he said. “I’m under contract, and we’ll see. Honestly, I just can’t even think about that right now, so I don’t know. … If I told you right now, I’m coming back.”

Pierce is the next domino. After watching their captain shoot 37 percent and commit 32 turnovers against 32 assists in the series, the Celtics could cut him loose for $5 million by July 1. But Danny Ainge can’t be that cold.

“He’s one of the greatest Celtics to ever play,” said Rivers. “He’s done so much for this franchise. We live in a day and time where guys are changing teams like socks, and Paul has chosen to to stay here throughout his career when clearly he had all rights to leave. He chose to stay here. So, I have so much respect for him for that.

“When I first got here, we were really rebuilding. We made the playoffs that first year, and I remember telling him, ‘Things are not going to go well for a year or two.’ And it didn’t. And Paul never wavered. So, I give him just an amazing amount of respect. He wanted to get it done here. He made that choice where other guys are running around trying to find it. Paul decided, ‘I’m going to stay here and see if we can win it.’ And he did that. So, I hope he’s remember for that, and obviously I hope he comes back.”

Pierce knows his future rests in Ainge’s hands. “That’€™s up to Danny and them,” he said. “I have no idea. I definitely expect to be playing next year.” As in, he’ll be playing somewhere in 2013-14. Boston or elsewhere. He gave the Celtics 18.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists in 33.4 minutes a night. Who’s replacing those numbers? When all was said and done, he was arguably their best player this season. Even at age 35.

The only other player in that argument was KG, and he turns 37 in two weeks. He has two years and $24.4 million left on the deal he signed last summer. And he’s leading the NBA Playoffs [11] in rebounds and double-doubles.

‘€œKevin Garnett limped into the playoffs, and he was unbelievable,” said Rivers. “He is as tough a guy, as tough a competitor, that I’ve ever been around. Rebounding and just doing everything for this team. I really didn’t want him to go out that way on our court. I just didn’t want him to. Obviously, we lost to a better team, but for him in particular I just didn’t want him to go out that way. But he is a winner. He’s the best. The best I’ve seen.”

So, I’ll ask you again: Who’s replacing those numbers? Chris Wilcox [12]? Shavlik Randolph? D.J. White? Fab Melo? Those dudes gave the Celtics 10 minutes in the entire series. Garnett played 212. Not bad for a 36-year-old.

‘€œOne of the big reasons I came here was because of Paul,” said Garnett. “Obviously, you want to be in a situation where it’€™s better. I want to make sure that I’€™m always able to help a team and be in positions where I’€™m giving something. I demand a lot from myself, both physically and from a skill level, but I’€™d be lying to y’€™all if I said Paul didn’€™t play into that factor. It’€™s too soon of a conversation for me right now.’€

After the game, Rivers, Pierce and Garnett agreed to discuss their future at a later date. They just couldn’t talk about next year yet. Not after the comeback that wasn’t. As KG said, “I’€™m kind of digesting in the current.”

“Who knows with the future?” added Pierce. “I’€™ve been here 15 years, and I’€™ve seen a lot of changes each and every year, so I’€™m sure there are going to be a lot of changes here, and we’€™ll see what happens.’€

The more things change, the more they stay the same. In all likelihood, the Celtics will get the band back together for one more run. Same as it ever was. Reload, retool, rise from the dead. All that. If only because they have no other choice. That and the fact Rondo won’t let them walk away. After all, he’s as stubborn as the rest of them.

“The crowd never died down,” Terry said after finishing his first season in Boston. “They were still with us. That’€™s what the definition of a true Celtic is. Never say never, never say die. Im proud to wear this uniform. We fought through a lot of adversity this season, but we never made excuses. We always came to work, we played with what we had. Sometimes the other team’s just better than you, and they were better than us today.’€

The Celtics are dead, long live the Celtics.