Those Boston Celtics, they just keep rollin’ along.
Not content to shatter the hopes of every fan within a hundred miles of the Cuyahoga River, the Celts went to work on the Magic’s kingdom from Lake Okeechobee to the Georgia border. Boston jumped out to a ten-point first-quarter lead, stretched it to twenty in the third quarter, and hung on through a fourth-quarter rally for a 92-88 win, grabbing the home-court advantage from Orlando in game one of the Eastern Conference finals.
Boston showed their victory over Cleveland was no fluke. As Bob Ryan pointed out, the Cavs may have had the best player in the series, but the Celtics had the next four best, with guard Rajon Rondo creating at least as many problems for the Cavs as their star did for Boston. When the Cavs focused on stopping Rondo, he spread the scoring load to the Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce, with Rasheed Wallace contributing a few clutch three-pointers. During a vital second-half stretch in the clinching game when the Celtics extended a two-point halftime lead to a fourteen-point advantage, six different Celts scored, as Rondo dished for five assists while hitting three field goals of his own.
On Sunday in Orlando, Boston took a 29-16 lead before either Garnett or Rondo scored their first points. Pierce and Allen, who combined for just eighteen points in the finale against the Cavs, had 22 and 25 respectively against the Magic. Orlando shot 4-for-20 in the first quarter and went 0-for-9 on three-pointers in the half, perhaps reflecting the rust from their week-long layoff and back-to-back sweeps in the playoffs so far. “I thought that may have hurt them in the first quarter with some of their shots,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after the game. “One of our guys said they played eight [nights] and they’ve had 21 or 22 off.”
While Orlando’s shooters struggled, the Celtics used Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis, and Rasheed Wallace to neutralize Dwight Howard inside. Howard expended a lot of energy wrestling for position with the threesome, who used up twelve fouls and held Howard to thirteen points on 3-of-10 from the floor.
The Celtics are trying to become just the second team to win an NBA championship with four players 32 or older among their six leaders in minutes played (ages calculated as of February 1 for all seasons). The four – Pierce, Allen, Garnett, and Wallace – are all healthy and receiving an infusion of energy from the efforts of the younger three (Rondo, 23; Perkins, 25; Davis, 24). It’s a Celtic tradition that goes back to the early days of their dynasty: As Bill Sharman and Bob Cousy grew old, Sam and KC Jones took on bigger roles. When the Joneses started to gray, John Havlicek stepped in to provide the spark. The older Havlicek, though tireless as he aged, benefitted from the youth of Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White on two title teams in his mid-thirties.
The other championship team with four major players 32 or older? Michael Jordan’s last Chicago Bulls squad, with Jordan (34), Scottie Pippen (32), Ron Harper (34), and Dennis Rodman (36). In the whole of NBA history, only one other team has even reached the Finals with four 32+ players in its top six: the 1996-7 Utah Jazz (Karl Malone, 33; John Stockton, 34; Jeff Hornacek, 33, Antoine Carr, 35).
Boston has a diversified squad with experience and energy, depth and variety. They look very much like the team that capped its 23-5 start with a Christmas Day win over Orlando, rather than the one that went 27-27 from that point on. It could easily be a retro Finals this year, the Celtics and Lakers facing off for the second time in three years and twelfth time in their history.
The trades that brought Garnett and Allen to Boston in 2007 have already paid off in full; for a team that looked old and shot just four weeks ago, the chance for a bonus banner is a significant surprise in a sport that’s generally no country for old men.