The various travails of Miami’s Big Three through the past four regular and postseasons has been documented by sports media as intensely as President Obama’s two terms have been by the political estate.
Without term limits, King James and his court have ruled over the Eastern Conference and have been crowned NBA champs in consecutive campaigns. However, during the latter half of their tenure together, a fourth member has emerged as the first option outside of the heralded Heat triumvirate.
Miami wouldn’t be on the trail of a legitimate dynasty claim without the contributions from their pruning ex-All-Star sixth man Ray Allen.
Too often, when athletic careers are evaluated, longevity is undervalued compared to peak performances. While the zenith of a player’s athletic marvels should undoubtedly weigh heavily on the balance of a player’s legacy, the duration of a player’s impact matters to an extent. While Allen's numbers have declined dramatically over the last seven years, his presence in big moments has been amplified.
The natural inclination when discussing Allen's career is to begin with "the shot" that tied the game, detonated a stink bomb on the Spurs championship celebration, helped extend the series to a Game 7 and vaulted Miami through the exclusive two-peat VIP line.
It’s a pivotal moment that will be burned into the retinas of NBA fans for as long as basketball is rooted firmly in American lexicon. The cool precision and choreography behind the execution of his backpedal without traveling, or wasting a second by looking down, was exemplary of everything we’ve come to know about Allen.
Nothing seems to affect his picturesque shooting form. He's as boring as his intense pregame workout and shooting regimen, but with that dull nature comes a reliable consistency. He has a steely resolve and an ice-cold assassin’s mentality that’s been present from the beginning. It’s also rubbed friend and foe the wrong way.
At his peak, Allen was always one step behind Kobe, T-Mac and Allen Iverson from being “the man”. In his advanced years he’s evolved into Steve Kerr on a team stuck in title repeat mode. Seventeen years ago, Kerr’s dagger three from the top of the key deflated Malone and Stockton’s Game 7 aspirations (for the first time) by delivering Jordan his fifth title.
Allen’s shot was one of the most daring shots in league history and made Kerr’s trey look like a third quarter free throw in comparison. The stakes were that large.
In the pantheon of clutch three’s it’s hard to imagine a shot that drew more stunned silence than Allen’s backpedal, corner three in Game 6.
It was an immaculate play that looked like something James Cameron engineered after years of tinkering with CGI in a lab. That he completed Miami's miracle comeback with a high-degree of difficulty three that would have earned him a balance beam gold medal at the tail end of a series in which Danny Green shattered Allen’s NBA Finals record for three-pointers made in a series made it that much more redemptive.
If that shot was the capstone of his illustrious clutch shooting career, the ’96 Big East title game-winner was the genesis of his legend. Allen’s opening curtain for national audiences occurred 16 years earlier during a duel with A.I. for the Big East crown. For two years in the Big East, Allen v. Allen was the marquee Big East’s premier individual matchup and their showdown lived up to the marquee billing.
Allen’s mid-air running man jumper from the right elbow was the culmination of a three-year career in which the marksman shooter was named Big East Player of the Year over A.I. and set a new school record for scoring.
He was the bland cyborg marksman with a rigid routine that directly countered Allen Iverson’s ostentatious crossovers and playground improvisation off the dribble. However, once they became pros, Allen was relegated to an also-ran in not just The League, but within his own legendary draft class.
On draft night, Allen and Kevin Garnett became teammates for the first time, until the Bucks traded for Allen as well as Rasho Nesterovic for the rights to Stephon Marbury. In Milwaukee, he was teamed up with vet Glenn Robinson II and eventually point guard Sam Cassell.
Within five years, the trio led a dystopian basketball culture in the Cream City out of slums an into a utopic Eastern Conference Finals appearance against Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers. For seven games, Allen and A.I. staged a harrowing shootout that seared nets and made their Big East battles look like chess in the park. In the deciding Game 7, Iverson branded the Bucks defense with 44 points and seven assists in an exhilarating display of his supreme offensive arsenal while Allen nearly matched A.I. with a 41 point output on the road. This time, Iverson got the better of Allen as the 76ers reduced the Bucks to mere rubble on their path to the Finals and the ’01 Bucks were siphoned away into the vast nothingness of playoff memories.
There was always an invisible chip on Allen’s shoulder though. Not as overt as the jagged chip hoisted onto Garnett’s shoulder, but more subtle than the ones worn on the shooting sleeves of his peers.
Throughout his career, Allen was never one to hold his tongue and he repeatedly got into tiffs with teammates such as Glenn Robinson, Rajon Rondo and rivals like Kobe Bryant. The The year after tripping up one win short of the NBA Finals, Milwaukee completely disintegrated and Milwaukee’s spit with Robinson in 2002 opened up a can of worms in which Allen questioned Robinson’s work ethic and accused him of dogging it in practice.
Robinson called Allen a coward and labeled him softer than butter.
"I have no respect for him. If this was a street game, I'd be going up side his head when I see him. But this is the NBA." Robinson fired back.
Robinson’s comments echoed Karl’s criticism of Allen, whom he told Sports Illustrated was a “Barbie Doll because he wants to be pretty,"
"He's a great player, but he cares too much about having style, making highlights and being cool. Basketball isn't about being cool. It's a tough, competitive game, and to win you have to be mean, you have to be an assassin, and that's not Ray." Karl told SI early in the 2001 season that ended with the Bucks falling to Philly in the Eastern Conference Finals.
At the next trade deadline, Allen was swapped for an older, slower Gary Payton and tucked away in the northwestern basketball Shangri-La of Seattle.
Ironically, a geriatric Payton would end up knocking down the second-biggest game-winning shot during the waning seconds in Game 3 of the '06 NBA Finals to keep the Heat from plummeting into a 0-3 hole five feet underneath the soles of the Dallas Mavericks feet.
In his second life as a Seattle Supersonic, Allen formed a prolific scoring duo current Heat teammate Rashard Lewis, who emerged as an unlikely scoring comet off the bench against Indiana with his post defense and three-point shooting prowess. However, in Seattle he and Allen sat at the top of the food chain.
Lewis has since settled into a role as a warm bench body. To put things in perspective, Allen was old enough to teach Lewis how to shave at the time they became teammates. Time has ravaged Lewis, who has since settled into a role as a warm bench body while Allen is still grinding for a career low 26.5 minutes a night.
During that time, Allen sparked a feud with Kobe Bryant. In the postscript of the Shaq-Kobe feud, Allen forecasted Bryant’s future issues with his lackluster supporting cast.
"He's going to be very selfish," Allen told the media on Oct. 14, 2004. "And he feels like he needs to show this league and the people in this country that he is better without Shaq. He can win championships without Shaq. So offensively, he's going to jump out and say, 'I can average 30 points. I can still carry the load on this team.'"
Allen was rightfully envious of the supporting talent Bryant had disposed of so frivolously. During five seasons in Seattle, the Supersonics missed the playoffs four times.
Allen's Game 6 three-pointer had a personal touch to it. Eight years earlier, the 52-win Sonics were tied with San Antonio at 96 in the waning seconds of the 2005 Western Conference Semifinals's Game 6. On the Spurs final possession, a furrier Manu Ginobili frantically fed Tim Duncan with a bullet pass into the paint. Duncan banked the shot in from four feet away over outstretched arms with .5 seconds left on the clock.
Allen had one desperation look off the rim after Nate McMillan's timeout advanced the ball past halfcourt, which bounced off the rim and left Allen holding back tears. "That's a shot I'll probably think about for a long time this summer." Allen said afterwards.
During his terminal season in Seattle, Allen was popping off 26 points per game, but ankle surgery ended his season in March and the losses piled up in droves afterwards as the Supersonics wound up second in the '07 draft lottery where they drafted a gangly Texas forward named Kevin Durant.
Instead of keeping Allen in a veteran’s capacity, Durant’s original positioning as a 2-guard forced the Sonics to stamp Allen’s first-class ticket to Boston in exchange for Jeff Green, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West. Allen’s defensive shortcomings were masked by Pierce, Garnett and their defensive-minded coaching staff led by Doc Rivers and assistant coach Tom Thibodeau.
Flanked by Garnett and Paul Pierce, the Celtics became foils to LeBron James’ Eastern Conference kingdom in Cleveland and then Miami. Boston’s Big Three may very well have been the impetus for Dwayne Wade, James and Chris Bosh to link up before eventually pilfering Allen from Titletown. The KG-Allen-Pierce Celtics were the pioneers of superstar trios in the 21st century. The Heat were the Soviet cosmonauts’ response to the Larry O’Brien arm’s race.
Not only did Allen, Garnett and Pierce spark a shift in superstar mindsets by sacrificing individual statistics, they prompted the Heat to one-up their formula. Miami’s Summer of 2010 haul was the direct result of Boston reading his last rights as a Cav on their 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals deathbed.
Yet, on the road out of Boston, Allen made enemies out of former friends once again by callously signing with the franchise that halted their final excursion into the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games.
When a crestfallen Rondo and Garnett trudged back to the locker room following their Game 7 loss to the Heat in May of 2012, Allen hugged it out with the Heat and seemingly began plotting his face-heel turn betrayal of Boston almost immediately.
When he accepted a three-year, $10 million deal over a two-year, $12 million contract from Miami, he became a pariah to the teammates he’d once shared a close knit brotherhood with—just as he had 12 years earlier with ‘Big Dog’ Robinson.
(Food for thought: It’s entirely plausible that Big Dog’s pup, Glenn Robinson III could fall to Miami at the bottom of the first round next month. Meanwhile Sam Cassell Jr. will be suiting up for UConn next season.)
In Allen’s defense, he saw the writing on the wall after he’d been marketed like a clearance gemstone on QVC. His value as a precision shooter gave him more value and stability with the championship-contending Heat than the Celtics who were on the precipice of a rebuilding arc.
Once Allen shut the door on Boston and settled on the white sands of South Beach, Rivers delivered a few grains of truth.
"Ray was great for us, and I won't go away from that," Rivers said in the fall of 2012 after months of letting the reality of Allen’s departure marinate. "Why it ended the way it ended, I really don't know."
“I think it was ego [more] than anything else," Rivers concluded.
Rivers’ point may have come across somewhat self-serving, but he was probably right. Allen’s name repeatedly popped up in trade discussions involving Memphis’ OJ Mayo leading up to the 2012 trade deadline. Allegedly, the trade went down, but fell through at the 11th hour. Allen arrived in Boston while a young Rondo was simply the weak link on a starting lineup that that included Kendrick Perkins.
As recently as 2009, Allen was on the trading block alongside Rondo in a rumored trade to Phoenix.
"So, I called him [Rondo] and I told him, 'Hey, they're supposedly trading us to Phoenix because you and Danny and Doc don't get along,' "Allen told the Miami Herald. "So, for some reason, I guess he thought that I had something against him, or there were some issues. And I had no issues with him. I won with him."
Five years after touching down in Boston, Rondo had blossomed into a premier, young floor general with a prickly attitude. However, his talent made him a more valuable commodity than Allen, and that appeared to rub the NBA’s three-point leader the wrong way.
Garnett and Pierce were revered. Allen was expendable and had been shoved out of the Big Three marquee to make room for Rondo. There’s no doubt that emotions were involved.
During his introductory Heat press conference, a beaming Allen tried his best to tip-toe around the Rondo issue with the same footwork he used to tiptoe along the sideline for corner threes.
"As teammates, we were brothers. … There's differences,” Allen said before spelunking into a bizarre breakfast analogy. “We all have differences. Paul eats corn flakes. I might not like corn flakes. That's just part of kind of who we are as individuals."
Garnett reacted with the outwardly stoic, yet seething vitriol of Michael Corleone unearthing Fredo’s deception and completely retreated from any amicable interaction with Allen.
Just as Allen had correctly pegged Bryant nearly a decade earlier, the Celtics’ swift garage sale on Rivers, Garnett and Pierce somewhat vindicated Allen, but didn’t earn him back a spot in the circle of trust.
During the closeout quarter of the Heat’s gentleman’s sweep of Brooklyn last month, Allen delivered what may have been the final knockout punch to the survivors of the Celtics Big Three era by knocking down a trey that gave Miami the permanent lead with 32 seconds to go.
Pierce will be a free agent, and Garnett is under contract for one more season with Brooklyn, if he doesn’t choose to retire.
We’ll find out if time heals all wounds or if Boston finds the compassion to forgive Allen one day. Allen’s remarkable Milwaukee years have been lost to the passage of time and indifference over Bucks history. His Supersonic prime is what the next generation of basketball paleontologists will dig up throughout the 21st century on dusty and neglected YouTube accounts.
His title in Boston is enduring, but most of the indelible memories are of Garnett’s primal postgame “Anything is possible” wailing, and Pierce pulling a fake Willis Reed in Game 1. There wasn’t as much acknowledgement for his 22 threes in 2008 as Green received for draining his 23rd in Game 6.
Allen’s eight treys in Game 2 of the 2010 Finals rematch against Los Angeles were followed by an uncharacteristic bout of streakiness in which he missed 24 of his final 28 threes to end the dismal series. Likewise, Allen went scoreless in Game 7 against San Antonio.
But “the shot” will live on in basketball lore. If he’d missed, as most mortals would have been expected to do under the circumstances, or put his foot on the line, the Heat would have dodges confetti with a sour look plastered on their grief-stricken faces as they slumped to the locker room and James’ legacy is on the defensive instead of the offensive entering the 2013-14 campaign. Allen hasn’t made himself too many allies around the league. Bostonians may not refer to him by name anymore, and he was only the second-most popular Allen in his own draft but he has at least one powerful figure and enemy turned ally in LeBron James who’ll owe him for the legacy bailout.
As for Duncan and Allen, the two oldheads in this series, the Finals rubber match will be their final opportunity to sprinkle their '90s flavor on the NBA's grandest stageand settle their score in their playoff rubber match.