The Boston Celtics could have a problem here...
An absolutely critical Game Five looms this evening at the TD Garden (7:00pm EST, TNT, WEEI) as the Celtics are trying to hold off the emerging Philadelphia 76ers in their Eastern Conference Semifinal. Most expected the veteran C's to dominate this series based on their collective playoff experience and the "in name only" stars that litter the roster. However, as Charles Barkley succinctly mentioned a few weeks ago (I'm as shocked as you are), there is a fine line between age and experience. It's a line the Celtics have flirted with throughout this series and the playoffs as a whole.
In Game 1, experience shone through as they quickly erased a deficit and outworked the younger Sixers in the fourth quarter to steal the series opener. The age made its presence known in Game 2 as the Celtics fell behind in the third quarter before simply running out of gas in their attempt to rally back. Game 3 was the experience again, as the Celtics attacked at will and blew the doors off their Atlantic Division rivals. Then there was Thursday's Game 4. The Celtics led by as many as 15 in the first quarter and led by 18 as late as the third in their bid to all but close the book on this series, before the Sixers rallied back furiously in the fourth to even the series. It was the kind of let up you'd expect from a younger team, content with the way it had played for 36 minutes.
Contrary to popular belief, I don't think this is a matter of the Celtics simply underestimating this upstart bunch from Philadelphia, though it's easy to see why some folks think that. This is an eighth seeded team that desperately clung to that spot against the Milwaukee Bucks in the final two weeks of the season -- the Sixers don't have a real go to scorer aside from the undersized Lou Williams, a man with all the shot chucking ability of Carmelo Anthony but without half the actual talent, and they're only here because of the devastating injury to Derrick Rose that allowed them to unseat the top seeded Chicago Bulls.
Personally, I think this is more a case of the Celtics simply not being physically able to muster a consistent effort on a nightly basis. If you're over the age of about 30 and not a professional athlete, you probably know what I'm talking about. Some days you get up in the morning and you feel like you can accomplish pretty much anything; other days you probably feel like you belong in a nursing home.
This particular group of Celtics has a similar affliction thanks to the advancing age of its core players. For example, after spraining his MCL back in Game Four of the opening round series with the Atlanta Hawks, captain Paul Pierce could hardly move for the final two games of that series and the first two of this one. He struggled moving laterally (an important skill in basketball) and had very little lift in his legs. Then, all of a sudden he's dunking on people, throwing up fadeaways, twisting his way into the lane and finishing in traffic in Games 3 and 4. Kevin Garnett, probably the oldest of the group (at least in terms of mileage), has had similar ups and downs. His 28-point, 14-rebound performance in Game 7 against Atlanta was a throwback to his Minnesota days, as was his 29-point, 11-rebound line in Game 1 against the Sixers. In the two losses during the Sixers series, though, KG has managed just 24 points TOTAL.
Some days you have it, and some days you don't.
The trouble with that is, while it's still likely the C's will find a way to win this series, what with two of the final three games at the TD Garden, this series has become the bar fight that I predicted it would be a week ago. The Sixers are too young to know they shouldn't be in this position, and the Celtics are a little too old to put them down in a way that would teach them. As a result, it's probably going to take everything this team has left in the gas tank to subdue their ever more confident foes. Maybe to the point where they won't have much left to give against a much better team in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Whether it's the Miami Heat or the Indiana Pacers in the next round (I'm still leaning toward the Heat despite their well documented problems), both are clearly superior to the Sixers. Beating either four times would be a monumental task for a Celtics team that struggles to put together strong performances in consecutive games.
This team has the look of Muhammad Ali in his second fight with Leon Spinks. They might have just enough left to squeak by the up and coming challenger, but Larry Holmes is waiting in the wings.