In some circles, the prevailing thought is that the Boston Celtics, led by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, are too old to outduel the emerging Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James. That’s to say nothing of the Celtics prospects of beating a healthy Los Angeles Laker team (with Andrew Bynum). The conventional wisdom, though, could very well be wrong here. Why?
1. The Celtics Aren’t As Old As We Think They Are
The Big 3 on Boston have been so good for so long that a part of me thinks they’re all about 40 years old and headed off to retirement in a year or so. Not a single Boston Celtic is older than 33. All of their big men who play big minutes (except for Mikki Moore) and do heavy banging are 25 or younger. That list includes Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis and Leon Powe. These guys are not going to hit the wall in June. Their point guard is 23. His back up hasn’t played a full season in years and is only 32.
The Celtics are far younger than I imagined. The other irony here is that for all their years in the league, neither Garnett (47 games in 11 years; 26 in 2007-2008), Allen (37 games in 12 years; 26 in 2007-2008) nor Pierce (37 games in 10 years; 26 in 2007-2008) ever played on teams that made deep annual runs in the playoffs. Prior to last year, they never logged the type of post-season minutes that make players age at a faster rate than their biological age.
Eliminated Again — and Mad As Heck
The Pistons are an example of a team that looks and plays far older than their biological age. Since 2003-2004, that team has been involved in some of the most physical, hotly-contested playoff battles — and many of those series have played out over 6 or 7 games. Rasheed Wallace was embroiled in deep playoff runs before ever coming to Detroit. Wallace has played in 149 playoff games. Prior to last season, that was more post-season competition than Garnett, Allen and Pierce had — combined.
Chest to Chest — For a Decade
2. The Celtics Have a Scheme that Maximizes the Benefits of Aging
Doc Rivers, to the chagrin of pundits all over the league, has developed an offensive and defensive system that places a premium on the preservation of energy. In the physics of the hoops, the expenditure of energy is not usually sufficient to win games. Technique, positioning and execution are critical.
On offense, the Celtics emphasize moving the ball to open shooters. The ball, then, is not so much to be possessed as it is to be shared. This approach to offense causes defenses to expend energy in pursuit of a light orb being passed swiftly from hand to hand. Boston is second in the league in field goal percentage. The number one team in the league is the Phoenix Suns. The Suns, by contrast, expend a great deal more energy executing their high-powered offense — and the overall results have been disappointing. The Celtics approach is based on ageless principles. The Celtics are also first in three-point shooting percentage. Move the ball to the player who faces the least resistance.
Effective offensive execution for the Celtics, then, is not wholly contingent on players like Garnett, Pierce and Allen running around the court dissipating their reserves. Quite the contrary. Defenses are often placed in that position because most teams do not have the requisite defensive talent or the proper scheme to guard against this approach.
3. The Cavaliers are Old in All the Wrong Places
I use the term “old” here very loosely. We’re talking about men in their early 30’s, after all. I believe, though, that the Cavaliers are old in all the wrong places because age tends to impact taller and heavier players of moderate skill more significantly than it impacts others. Age, obviously has a profound impact on speed players, but the Celtics are not an old team in the classic speed positions. Further, I would assert that elite players will age better (especially if they have long-standing health management routines) than average players.
The big men that the Cleveland Cavaliers will rely on to push past the Celtics are all 33 years of age or older, except for Anderson Varejao. Zyldrunas Ilgauskas is 33. Joe Smith is 33. Lorenzen Wright (who apparently graduated from Memphis in 1922) is 33. Ben Wallace is 34 and is a veteran of the aforementioned Piston Wars.
Youngest Man Standing
Cleveland, a team led by a 24-year old Super Man, will be in the paradoxical position of hoping their big men can sustain their energy through May and June against a significantly younger Celtic frontline.
Prediction – Eastern Conference Finals
If the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals (assuming that Kevin Garnett is healthy), it will not be because they were a younger team. Cleveland is led by a superstar on the rise; Boston is led by superstars who have passed their prime. Cleveland is trying to win with an assortment of relatively old, mediocre big men. I can’t recall when that has worked. Teams like the 2006 Miami Heat (Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning) and the 2003 San Antonio Spurs (David Robinson, Kevin Willis) were able to win with older, but accomplished, big men in defined roles and limited minutes. Of course, both of those teams were fortunate enough to draw two of the weakest (physically) Finals opponents in the history of the NBA Finals (the Dallas Mavericks and New Jersey Nets).
Ultimately, scheme and the performance of role players will be a significant part in the outcome.
If youth is served, don’t be surprised if the Boston Celtics emerge victorious once again — in 7 games.