CLEVELAND - For most of his 13 seasons in the NBA, Ray Allen has been a one-one show - spectacular enough to carry his modest teams to the playoffs, but unable to advance them past more talented opponents.
Ultimately, it became a vicious cycle - and a lonely, frustrating one at that.
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce each experienced similar journeys over the course of their first decade in the NBA. But now these three supernovas have intersected at the same point, with the Boston Celtics, and been presented with their best - and perhaps last - chance at an NBA championship.
The magnetic star power of Garnett, Pierce and Allen, who have 22 All-Star appearances between them, burned bright, but not quite to full wattage Tuesday night, as the Celtics were dealt their second defeat of the season in a 109-104 loss to the Cavaliers at The Q.
Allen, who has hit two game-winning shots in the last month in leading the Celtics to a sizzling start, inexplicably missed two free throws with 23.1 seconds left in the fourth quarter with the score tied at 92.
How rare is that? Allen is a career 88 percent free throw shooter and has never shot worse than 82 percent in any season. It marked the first time he has missed two free throws in any game this year and obscured an otherwise sensational performance in which he scored a team-high 29 points, grabbed seven rebounds and had five assists, while hitting 5 of 12 shots from beyond the arc.
Allen sat crestfallen in his chair in the front of his locker afterward, his feet dangling in a bucket of ice, with one hand covering his face.
"I feel like I let the team down," he said. "I was so surprised I missed that first one, I didn`t let it go and I took it to the second one. If I make those two free throws, that`s the game."
Until Tuesday night, the Celtics had lived charmed lives.
Boston coach Doc Rivers said the team had "stolen" a win Saturday when Allen nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer to down the Charlotte Bobcats.
Still, the Celtics (11-2 overall) remain one of the most compelling stories in the NBA this season.
As a trio, Garnett, Pierce and Allen are basketball soul mates. Garnett, 31, is perhaps the greatest player of his era without a championship ring. Pierce, 30, and Allen, 32, have also had brilliant, yet unfulfilling careers. And each knows their window of opportunity is small.
It`s for that reason the trio has gone to such lengths to sacrifice each of their respective top-gun status for the sake of the team.
"If we were all in our second, third and fourth years, this would be much more difficult," Pierce said.Â "As younger players, you`re so focused on establishing a reputation in the league. But at this point in our careers - Ray in his 13thÂ (year), Kevin in his 12th, me in my ninth - it`s easier to accept."
From a chemistry standpoint, the transition is ongoing. On Tuesday, the offensive production was sporadic and - worse - dictated by the half-court pace established by the Cavaliers.
"We wanted to see if they could compete in that style of basketball," Allen said. "But we kind of allowed ourselves to fall into that predicament."
Still, it`s not hard to see how seamlessly the Garnett, Pierce and Allen mesh. Celtics general manager Danny Ainge fused three stars whose games are almost perfectly complementary.
"You knew Kevin would fit in easily because even in Minnesota, when he was by himself, he overpassed at times," said Rivers. "But it`s the way all them that have passed that`s impressed me. They`ve been sharing the ball very easily."
Garnett is a fierce rebounder and defender who can also score from anywhere on the court - without ever demanding the ball. Allen is one of the top shooters in the league. Pierce has been a dominant scorer throughout his career.
It`s been 21 years since the Celtics last wore the crown of NBA champions. Since then, the former lords of the league have been star-crossed victims: Larry Bird`s career undermined by back trouble, Len Bias` overdose, Reggie Lewis` heart attack.
Last season, Boston finished 24-58, its second-worst record ever. Not only were the Celtics awful, but fate seemed to be working against them. When franchise-changing players became available in the NBA Draft, the Ping-Pong balls bounced awry - denying Tim Duncan in 1997 and then Greg Oden and Kevin Durant last summer.
It would be unfair to refer to Garnett, Pierce and Allen as the "Big Three" - a phrase once reserved for immortals only -- Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.
For one night, anyway, that hope was dashed by Cleveland. But the spark of new life in this franchise remains apparent. Season ticket sales at the Boston Garden have jumped 60 percent. The Celtics went from having no national TV appearances a year ago to having one nearly every other week. And suddenly, dreams of a 17th banner aren`t so far-fetched.
"I think we got these guys at the right time," said Rivers. "They`ve all had individual success, but they all needed team success to be, in their minds, successful. They have that opportunity here."
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7135 or email@example.com.