Those Boston Celtics, they just keep rollin' along.
Not content to shatter the hopes of every fan within 100 miles of the Cuyahoga River, the Celts went to work on the Magic's kingdom from Lake Okeechobee to the Georgia border. Boston jumped to a 10-point first-quarter lead, stretched it to 20 in the third quarter and hung on through a fourth-quarter rally for a 92-88 victory Sunday, grabbing the home-court advantage from Orlando in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Boston showed its victory over Cleveland was no fluke. As Bob Ryan pointed out, the Cavs may have had the best player in the series, but the Celtics had the next four best, with guard Rajon Rondo creating at least as many problems for the Cavs as their star did for Boston.
When the Cavs focused on stopping Rondo, he spread the scoring load to the Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, with Rasheed Wallace contributing a few clutch three-pointers. During a vital second-half stretch in the clinching game when the Celtics extended a two-point halftime lead to a 14-point advantage, six different Celts scored, and Rondo dished for five assists while hitting three field goals of his own.
In Orlando, Boston took a 29-16 lead before Garnett or Rondo scored his first points. Allen and Pierce, who combined for just 18 points in the finale against the Cavs, had 25 and 22, respectively, against the Magic. Orlando shot 4-for-20 in the first quarter and went 0-for-9 on three-pointers in the half, perhaps reflecting the rust from a weeklong layoff and back-to-back playoff sweeps.
"I thought that may have hurt them in the first quarter with some of their shots," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "One of our guys said they played eight [nights] and they've had 21 or 22 off."
While Orlando's shooters struggled, the Celtics used Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis and Wallace to neutralize Dwight Howard inside. Howard expended a lot of energy wrestling for position with the threesome, who used up 12 fouls and held Howard to 13 points on 3-of-10 shooting.
The Celtics are trying to become just the second team to win an NBA championship with four players 32 or older among its six leaders in minutes played (ages calculated as of Feb. 1 for all seasons). The four - Pierce, Allen, Garnett and Wallace - are healthy and receiving an infusion of energy from the efforts of the younger three (Rondo and Davis are 24 and Perkins 25).
It's a Celtics tradition that goes back to the early days of their dynasty: As Bill Sharman and Bob Cousy grew old, Sam and K.C. Jones took on bigger roles. When the Joneses started to gray, John Havlicek stepped in to provide the spark. The older Havlicek, though tireless as he aged, benefitted from the youth of Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White on two title teams in his mid-30s.
The other championship team with four major players 32 or older? Michael Jordan's last Chicago Bulls squad, with Jordan (34), Scottie Pippen (32), Ron Harper (34) and Dennis Rodman (36). In NBA history, only one other team has even reached the Finals with four 32-plus players in its top six. The 1996-97 Utah Jazz had Karl Malone, 33, John Stockton, 34, Jeff Hornacek, 33, and Antoine Carr, 35.
The Celtics have a diversified squad with experience and energy, depth and variety. They look very much like the team that capped its 23-5 start with a Christmas victory over Orlando rather than the one that went 27-27 from that point on. It could easily be a retro Finals this year, the Celtics and Lakers facing off for the second time in three years and 12th time in history.
The trades that brought Garnett and Allen to Boston in 2007 have already paid off in full. For a team that looked old and worn just four weeks ago, the chance for a bonus banner is a significant surprise in a sport that's generally no country for old men.