In the NBA playoffs, the 'old heads' find ways to hold court

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

If you've ever played the game past your prime, you know at some depressing point that the only way to stop an athletic young cat from driving past you is by physically grabbing him instead of actually guarding him. This is called pick-up survival, the only way an old head might be able to hold the court until sundown.

That's why I marvel at aging ballplayers getting it done at the highest level -- particularly guys with no lift, no lateral movement and multiple surgeries. They subsist mainly on muscle memory. They represent every 40-plus player at the park trying to repel the new-school kid.

Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce about fit the bill. Derek Fisher (36 this August), Grant Hill (37) and Steve Nash, still dribbling circles around everyone at 36, definitely qualify. Kobe Bryant, who had massive amounts of fluid drained from his knee yesterday, is not far behind at 31.

On Wednesday, the day of Garnett's 34th birthday, the Celtics' Big Three of this millennium will be a combined 100 years old. That's aging in a league of AND1 hops and unbridled athleticism, of 22-year-old skywalkers and a levitating LeBron.

Writing Boston off became a pastime in my profession this year, especially in light of the Celtics' 27-27 record after Christmas to end the regular season.

Doc Rivers kept saying, "If we get healthy, we could be good," and after a while the Celtics coach sounded like a broken record, a prideful warrior unwilling to deal with the reality that the window had slammed shut on his broken-down, stubborn roster -- including a 35-year-old Rasheed Wallace.

But there was 'Sheed on Sunday, bottling up Dwight Howard in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, getting inside the young fella's grille and his mind. "Don't judge me on what I do in the regular season," he chirped, "just judge me on what I do in the playoffs."

There was Ray-Ray, drifting to his favorite spots on the floor, finding that sweet stroke from behind the arc as if he was in Milwaukee 10 years ago and could not miss. KG was agile and loud, head-faking Antawn Jamison in Game 6 of the second round, when Pierce finally started making big shots -- the night LeBron and the Cavaliers were knocked out cold.

The Celtics again care defensively. They again share the ball offensively. Garnett has his little Dream Shake going, his footwork sound, his shot money.

So this must be mid-May, when creaky veterans somehow find that stride and swagger, when the old heads suddenly morph into the young bucks they once were, when they find their legs are spry again and discover the real secret of playoff survival: pretending every one of the first 82 games mattered.

The truth: Many 10-year-plus NBA veterans save their bodies for April, May and June, to the point of taking nights off, babying injuries, using an economy of effort and movement, doing anything they can, really, to get ready for the only time of year they are ultimately judged on.

Rick Fox, the former NBA forward, walked around the Lakers locker room in 2002 and began asking teammates a question. "Shaquille," he began, "when was the last time your body was 100 percent?"

"Real 100 percent?" Shaq replied. "Probably my rookie year."

Ron Harper nodded. Robert Horry nodded. Fox, in the middle of passing out Advil caplets to old and sore teammates, finally said: "See, there's a reason why a lot of us focus on getting right for the playoffs. If you know you're going to play over 100 games, you got to pace yourself. Or else you just break down when you're older. And that doesn't do anyone any good."

During Houston's second championship season in 1995, the Rockets limped to the end of the regular season. Hakeem Olajuwon looked beaten down, weathered, old. Mario Elie was running on fumes. Clyde Drexler was a shadow of his Portland self.

That June, the Rockets somehow ended up in the NBA Finals against the hottest, young team imaginable -- a young, svelte Shaq and second-year all-star Anfernee Hardaway, a team of youth, depth and athleticism. Many of the game's observers thought Shaq and Penny could be Kareem and Magic, the next generation.

The Magic was swept in four games. Houston had not played possum so much as paced themselves perfectly.

The Celtics of today are merely an extension of Hakeem's Rockets, of Michael Jordan's aging Bulls from 1996 to 1998 and the Spurs after David Robinson -- the old heads not yet ready to relinquish the court, who find a way to harness their energy and health in late spring, the most defining part of an NBA season.

It's no wonder the team that awaits Boston if the Celtics get past a younger, more athletic Orlando squad will be either the Lakers, a team led by a 13-year veteran in Kobe, or the Suns of Nash, Hill and Amare Stoudemire and his reconstructed knee.

Heck, Kobe and Shaq don't share three titles beginning in 2000 if Horry and Fisher don't hit big shots in June for them. Did you know Fisher, who has played in June six times, has the highest cumulative three-point percentage in Finals history?

Boston was given up on earlier because Pierce missed 11 games physically in the regular season and struggled, Wallace missed probably 20 games emotionally, Garnett was still slowly coming back from knee problems that kept him out of the 2009 postseason and Allen was suddenly guardable from behind the three-point line.

But now it's mid-May. Game time. And it really is as if four, creaky-kneed guys -- some with headbands, others with braces -- walked into the community center with the mission of sending the kids home early. Needing one player to make up their five, they asked the skinny dude with the headband to be their point guard. Rajon Rondo said yes, and look who's holding court till sundown.

Not LeBron. Not Carmelo Anthony. Not even Dwyane Wade. It's the guys who were supposed to be done and gone a month ago.

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