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Grant Chapman: Celtics fading with age


By Grant Chapman

Published: 7:50AM Friday February 15, 2013 Source: ONE Sport

The old school among us are still coming to grips with the prospect that this year's NBA playoffs may proceed without the two most storied franchises in the league - the LA Lakers and the Boston Celtics.

Yes, the two rivals that really defined the competition through the Magic/Bird era of the 1980s and have both won titles within the past five years are on the ropes.

Between them, they have captured the O'Brien Trophy 33 times and have faced each other in the finals 12 times.

Most recently, Boston defeated LA in the 2008 title series, but two years later, the Lakers edged the Celtics to defend the title they won the year before against Orlando Magic.

But both have fallen on hard times this season.

The Lakers' struggle for chemistry has been well documented - and I hate to say I told you so, but I did.

Dumping their coach early, switching from a slow deliberate system to a more up-tempo one, injuries to Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol - it's been a slow-motion car crash in progress.

Through this process, it's been fascinating to watch the leadership styles of Nash and Kobe Bryant through this crisis, especially with relation to Howard's tendancy to sulk when things don't go his way.

It's almost a good cop/bad cop scenario, with Bryant publicly calling his All-Star centre out, while Nash seems more prepared to quietly do whatever the team needs, even if it means changing his own game from what he does best.

Howard has learnt from his mistakes, last week refusing to be drawn on his future whereabouts while this season hangs in the balance. That kind of talk totally disrupted the Magic last season before he was traded to LA, so at least he now seems slightly focused on getting healthy and helping the Lakers out of their predicament.

Perhaps that's another sign of Nash at work.

There are some other good signs coming out of Tinseltown. Although Gasol has been sidelined for a few weeks with a foot injury, they have found a very useful replacement in Earl Clark - the forgotten many in the Magic trade, but another one of those players who has just been waiting for a chance to shine.

That chance has arrived, and he's averaged 13.1 points and 8.6 rebounds during the Laker's 7-3 run through the last 10 games.

With the All-Star break looming, they're still 3.5 games out of a playoff spot, but I predict they'll creep into the eight and become the team no-one wants to face in the post-season.

On the other hand, Boston just keep taking hits and so far, have responded beautifully.

This was always going to be a difficult season for the Celtics, as they transition from the veteran core that carried them to their most recent title to introducing younger talent that could make success more sustainable.

Shooter Ray Allen pre-empted that shift by taking his talents to South Beach to chase one last title with the Heat, before he retires as the greatest three-pointer shooter in NBA history.

While tough for some of his spurned former team-mate to stomach, this move has necessary for the medium-to-long-term fortunes of the club.

They replaced Allen (37) with only slightly younger Jason Terry (35), a key to the Dallas Mavericks' title two years ago, and stuttered out of the blocks.

In fact, they were looking decidedly shaky until, after a couple of recent triple doubles, franchise point guard Rajon Rondo suffered a season-ending knee injury. The Celtics were on a six-game losing streak when Rondo went down, but promptly reeled off seven straight wins.

That run ended this week with a loss to the league's worst team - the Charlotte Bobcats - but even that wasn't totally unexpected. The night before, they had battled Denver Nuggets through three overtimes, before finally prevailing.

Boston's aging core of Terry, Kevin Garnett (37) and Paul Pierce (35) were never going to bounce back that quickly, even against the lowly cats.

But Rondo hasn't been the only loss - rookie Jared Sullinger finally succumbed to a dodgy back and now Brazilian livewire Leandro Barbosa has suffered a similar injury to Rondo.

You'd never want to bet against Garnett and Pierce, who have been superb over the past couple of weeks. Pierce had a triple double in the first game without Rondo - a win over the champion Heat - and went 27/14/14 against the Nuggets.

But with bodies falling around them, they surely can't continue that pace, although they did edge the Bulls 71-69 yesterday.

While the All-Star break and trade deadline offer some hope, their schedule will resume next week with a tricky West Coast road trip that could define their season.

They're 27-24 and 4.5 games clear of ninth-placed Philadelphia in the east. The Sixers have their own problems, with the continuing absence of Andrew Bynum, and loss of starters Thaddeus Young and Jason Richardson.

It would take a big move from anyone below to force their way into the playoff eight - this old timer still expects to see Lakers and Celtics still in action in late April.