Published April 26, 2010
The first round of the NBA playoffs seems to be telling us that old school is now in session.
Fans of the Los Angeles Lakers may be skeptical at the moment, but those who root for the Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs are being treated to the joys instigated by experienced teams. For now, at least. So, while much of the basketball world was reeling in the aftermath of the Lakers' recent, two-game limp through Oklahoma City, the crusty C's and Spurs were grabbing command of their respective series.
This means the self-appointed sages of hoop insight are vigorously nodding. See, the guys from Boston and San Antonio often are embraced by those who don't mind hedging their prediction bets on accomplished teams with their knuckles still clutching the sill beneath the window of opportunity. As the Celtics and Spurs dragged injury and chronological issues through the regular season, it's easy for these sages to warn us about writing off the teams in question.
We're not sure how far the sages or teams in question can ride this dynamic, but the Celtics and Spurs look pretty nice right now.
Let's begin with the C's, who had hoped to finish off the Miami Heat in four but were denied the extra rest when Dwyane Wade went cuckoo in Sunday's fourth quarter. Hey, even a team full of young hotshots would have been no match for Charles Barkley's cell-phone-commercial buddy during that run.
But the Celtics have squeezed enough juice from their old-head threesome of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce to join forces with point guard Rajon Rondo for three wins in the first three games. Garnett has maintained his nasty streak and even seems to have a bit more pop in his repaired knee (don't forget one game off afforded by his elbow). With a considerable length advantage over Miami's Michael Beasley and Udonis Haslem, KG provides timely inside buckets on his jump hook and has been solid in pick-and-pop maneuvers that underscore Beasley's inability to recognize and/or react on defense.
Allen has provided a rabbit-like quality to the Boston offense that often requires Wade to chase him through screens until the fourth quarter, when Miami assigns him to play free safety and all but ignore Rondo on perimeter looks. With Wade running around screens in pursuit of the former Jesus Shuttlesworth, the Heat star occasionally takes a break and defers to a teammate once or twice on offense.
All Pierce has done is nail a buzzer-beater to win Game 3.
Before saluting those who remind us to avoid sleeping on the aging Spurs, please note that the eight-man rotation of the team they now hold a 3-1 series edge on in the Western Conference playoffs -- the second-seeded Dallas Mavericks -- is older than they are. Perhaps few people noticed the average age of the Mavericks' starting lineup is 33 years because they assumed their window had been nailed shut before the season began. Well, they were good enough to make a major deadline trade and earn the second seed, but now are in a big hole against a team that tiptoed through the regular season.
OK, so the Spurs aren't quite as doddering as the Mavericks (on paper), but injuries and advancing years had conspired to make some people insist they finally were unable to conjure a playoff uprising. To most of us, taking a 3-1 lead over the Mavericks is more impressive than making Wade go superhero just to avoid a sweep. Even with the mileage, Boston leading Miami isn't exactly shocking. Most observers had expected San Antonio to push Dallas to the limit in this Texas showdown, but a shot at winning in five was harder to forecast.
In addition to reasonable health for its big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs have been infused with some life from combo guard George Hill and rookie post player DeJuan Blair. Coach Gregg Popovich also has been granted some moments of enlightenment from first-year Spur Richard Jefferson, the offseason addition who was expected to make San Antonio a legitimate contender once again.
So, with the young, bouncy legs of the Oklahoma City Thunder trumping -- for at least two games -- the championship chops of the Lakers, why are the Celtics and Spurs thriving? Well, Wade is a sensational player, but his team just isn't that good, especially when expensive big man Jermaine O'Neal looks incapable of throwing a stone into a lake and seems either uninterested or simply late in defensive rotation.
As mentioned, the Spurs aren't really up against a team offering overpowering speed and bounce. And that's really true at the point-guard spot, where 37-year-old Jason Kidd and understudy Jose Berea don't have the wheels to match San Antonio's Parker and Hill. That's a crucial component, especially when applied to the Eastern Conference series co-starring Boston and Miami. Even though the Heat suit up more guys who can run fast and jump high, Miami has no real north-south answer for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo.
When you have a speed and quickness advantage at the point of attack on offense and defense, some potential age-related deficiencies can be diminished. The Lakers, for example, have a size advantage along the baseline with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, but it's harder to exploit with the Thunder's Russell Westbrook matched against L.A. veteran Derek Fisher.
Then again, Fisher was often a step behind Aaron Brooks when the Lakers were forced to go to the mat against the Houston Rockets last season. If they can work the inside in Game 5 without Kobe Bryant completely eliminating himself as a threat, the Lakers could be back in business. It also doesn't hurt teams like the Lakers, Celtics and Spurs that -- due to TV concessions -- playoff series are spread out and last longer than a celebrity marriage.
But we're still not convinced that excess recovery time will be enough to get the C's through Round 2. The anticipated foe is LeBron James and his merry Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron is a force of nature whose ability to shake any game overshadows most trends that may arise.
If the Spurs can close out the Mavericks, their speedy point guards will have to deal with Portland Trail Blazers veteran Andre Miller or Phoenix Suns oldie Steve Nash. When all positions are factored, surviving another seems a lot more doable for San Antonio.