BOSTON -- This was the standard preseason evaluation of the Boston Celtics: frontcourt too old, too slow; backcourt too young; bench nothing special. Best in the Atlantic probably but no chance to beat out the Pistons or Bulls in the Eastern Conference.

So how come the Celtics, at 18-4, are the best team in the East and the biggest threat to Portland through the first quarter of the NBA season? The frontcourt, with an injection of the backcourt's youthful exuberance, has been reborn. The kiddies at guard have hidden their inexperience with talent. Kevin McHale is again the sixth man. And the Celtics, the team with the best field goal percentage in the league, are positively ferocious once more.

The Geritol Three (Bird, McHale, Parish) have welcomed a much more diverse attack. Seven Celtics reached double figures in Friday night's 108-100 victory over the two-time defending champion Pistons at the Garden. "They're that good," Chuck Daly said of the Celtics. "The record speaks for itself."

Robert Parish struggled through much of November, but the Celtics won. Larry Bird has struggled with his shooting through much of December, but the Celtics are still winning. It used to be that if one of the Geritol Gang had an off night, the Celtics were hard-pressed to win.

If you ask one of the oldies, they'll tell you the primary reason why the Celtics look good enough -- at least for now -- to challenge any team: Brian Shaw and Dee Brown, 24 and 22, respectively. "It's a credit to the backcourt," Parish, 37, said. "There's a lot more enthusiasm and it's rubbing off on the older guys."

Parish likens it to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's rejuvenation when Magic Johnson arrived in 1979. "It's like being traded," Parish told a Hartford newspaper. "A new life. To see them so gung-ho is great. The backcourt is where people had been breaking us down, which put more pressure on me and Kevin defensively. If we didn't do something about our backcourt, we were in for another long year. And nobody wanted that."

Certainly not Chris Ford, the new coach, who knew another year of ancient warrior Dennis Johnson at point guard wasn't the answer. "Their athleticism and enthusiasm has given this team a shot in the arm," Ford said. "It's one thing to have youth. It's another to have talented youth."

When last we left the Celtics, losing three straight to the Knicks after taking a 2-0 lead in the playoffs, DJ had run out of gas and Bird, now 34, was no longer able to keep up with the best small forwards.

The drafting of Brown from Jacksonville, the return of Shaw from Italy and Reggie Lewis's ascension to true stardom has changed everything. Bird may be too slow to play small forward but is noticeably quicker than most power forwards, a position that takes better advantage of his strength and rebounding.

That pushed McHale, 33 next week, to the bench, where he now resides until it's time to spell Bird or Parish. Some nights, McHale plays 20 minutes; other nights (like this one when he went for 18 points in the first half), Ford stays with him longer. Against Detroit, McHale led Boston with 24 points and 11 rebounds.

Many of those baskets came on layups, the result of Brown and Shaw racing upcourt and making good, crisp passes to the man filling the lane. Old men need easy baskets.

"They add so much quickness," Piston Mark Aguirre said of the Boston guards. "Their backcourt is so seasoned, not out of control. It's an added dimension for Boston to speed it up like that."

Bird says he's excited about the freshness. "I do like it," he said. "I get a chance to play a new position. I like change. It keeps things interesting. And I have a new role, new matchups."

One old thing Bird would like back is his shot. But he admits that is unlikely. Bird can still hit for 40, but may score five the next night. When someone asked about the impact of the youngsters, Bird quipped, "They haven't done anything to help my shot," on target only 47 percent of the time. Still, when the game is tight, the Celtics look to the No. 33.

The Pistons had climbed to 97-94 with three minutes to play. Bird missed a three-pointer. Isiah Thomas went out of bounds trying to grab the loose ball, giving the ball back to Boston. Bird set up for three again. Swish. Celtics up six, never to be seriously challenged again.

"It's all come together sooner than we anticipated," said Shaw, who reminds people of the vintage DJ the way he defends, rebounds from the guard position and knifes down the lane. "It's still early, and we can't make too much of it, but we like the way we're playing. We're able to clamp down defensively on people at critical times. We make the extra pass, a trickle-down from Larry, and we've found new guys to go to in crunch time."

Shaw, while in Italy, would look at the box scores and wonder if he could have made a difference, especially in the playoffs. The answer is yes.

One quarter of the way through the season, Daly appears to be wondering how to make a difference. The Pistons now have lost six of their last seven. "We're going to keep looking at this, fish around," Daly said. "We're out of sync, guys are trying to win it themselves. We're going to have to get over that."

Even so, the Pistons are 14-8, in second place in the Central, and are playing about like they did in going 13-10 last season, en route to another title.

In recent seasons the Pistons, Lakers and Bulls have been checking their rear-view mirrors wondering if the Celtics really would stay back in the pack all season. Right now, they're looking straight through the windshield, trying to catch the surprise leaders.