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CBSSports.com National Columnist

Celtics are aging but nowhere near over the hill


ORLANDO -- Boston got old this season. You saw that. Everybody saw that. The Celtics have three future Hall of Famers in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and that future is coming up fast. All three are 32 or older, and they'll be inducted into the Hall of Fame within the decade, all three of them. That makes Boston an old team.

But there's an important distinction that must be made, and after the Celtics followed their six-game elimination of top-seeded Cleveland by stealing the home-court advantage from second-seeded Orlando on Sunday, I'll make it:

Boston got old this season, yes, but Boston didn't get too old.

There's a difference, and it's an easily quantifiable difference. We all saw it. We're seeing it happen now. Here it is: The Celtics are too old to rampage through the regular season -- but they're not too old to rampage through the playoffs.

And this is a rampage.

After beating Miami in five games and beating Cleveland in six, the Celtics dominated younger, deeper Orlando on Sunday, leading from start to finish in a 92-88 victory that was close only in the final four minutes.

"We got outplayed," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. "It's as simple as that."

This is not the same Boston team that muddled through the final four months of the regular season. That Boston team wasn't capable of outplaying Orlando, of out-defending the team that led the NBA in field-goal percentage defense this season. But that Boston team wasn't practicing hard some days, and wasn't practicing at all on others. Celtics coach Doc Rivers was holding his team back -- saving something for the playoffs.

This is the result -- the series wins against Miami and Cleveland, and now the 1-0 series lead against Orlando. The Celtics manhandled Orlando for most of Game 1, starting in the middle by throwing a wave of bodies at All-NBA Orlando center Dwight Howard and holding him to 13 points and 12 rebounds with seven turnovers.

"They did a lot of good things on defense," Howard said. "It was just like that in the first playoff series against Charlotte. They have a lot of guys, a lot of bodies. They want to frustrate me and not let me get into my game. I have to not wrestle with them -- just play."

Howard wasn't finishing inside, and Orlando wasn't hitting shots from the perimeter. The Magic set an NBA record with 841 3-pointers this season, an average of more than 10 per game, but they had none in the first half when Boston grabbed control -- and they finished with just five overall.

Boston's defense did that. Surprised? Doc Rivers wasn't surprised.

"We had it in us," Rivers said. "We did it for the first 28 games. We were terrific out of gates defensively. We lost ourselves. But now we're finding ourselves again."

Rasheed Wallace scores 13 points in 20 minutes in Game 1. (Getty Images)  
Rasheed Wallace scores 13 points in 20 minutes in Game 1. (Getty Images)  
Rivers will tell you how that whole "lost ourselves" thing happened.

"Well," he said, "we are old."

True. Too old to play three games in four days, like they did in late December and again in late January. The Celtics lost all six of those games. They also lost a two-game, two-day, two-city saga against Atlanta and Indiana. And they lost twice in two days to Milwaukee and Memphis. Those are not great teams, Atlanta or Indiana or Milwaukee or Memphis. But they are younger than Boston. The Celtics got old this season, but again, they didn't get too old.

The playoffs are indeed a second season. Instead of playing games on consecutive days, there are days off between games, sometimes two or even three. Boston is catching its breath. A guy like Allen, who is 34 and whose scoring average dropped more than 10 ppg from just four years ago -- from 26.4 ppg to 16.3 ppg this season -- exceeded 25 points just once in the final 34 games of the regular season. But here in the playoffs he has scored 25 points four times in 12 games, including Sunday, when he attacked the rim early and buried two 3-pointers late.

A guy like Pierce, 32, whose 18.3 ppg scoring average was his lowest since he was a rookie 12 years ago, is 25 again. Give him a few days off, and he still has it at the highest level. Orlando saw that on Sunday, when Pierce needed just eight shots to score 22 points. He also grabbed nine rebounds and handed out five assists, and was far and away the best player on the floor.

Even Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace, the prehistoric Boston big men with a combined 28 years of NBA experience, played young again. Garnett had eight points, 11 rebounds and five assists, and Wallace scored 13 points in 20 minutes and helped take Howard out of the game mentally and physically.

"Rasheed has been phenomenal defensively all playoffs," Rivers said. "That's why we signed him."

Boston signed Wallace for the playoffs. Boston has done everything this season for the playoffs. A 23-5 start to open the season gave Rivers the cushion to ease back in recent months, and the result was a 27-27 finish.

But in the playoffs, Boston is 9-3. And after winning Game 1, all the Celtics have to do now is hold serve, win their games at home, and they will advance to the NBA Finals with a shot at their second title in three years.

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. More importantly, he is 4-0 as an amateur boxer, with three knockouts. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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