BOSTON – Age and pain lingered like unwelcome guests in the Boston Celtics' locker room on Monday night.
They hovered around Ray Allen, the brilliant shooting guard, as he described his right ankle before Game 2 of this Eastern Conference semifinal. He said something about a piece moving around, which sounded like the wrong kind of thing for a player who relies on his jump shot.
“It keeps me from being able to do what I can do,” he said.
They pinned Kevin Garnett in the trainer’s room after Game 2, holding for more than an hour the player who said the other day, “I’d die out here if I have to, and that’s real talk.”
They lived in the legs of forward Paul Pierce, whose shot didn’t have the usual life and who later sat at his locker and growled, “My knee is fine. I wore my knee brace today.”
The Celtics hate to talk about their basketball mortality, mainly because they have been able to outlast it for so long, just as they did in a six-game series against Atlanta, just as they did for much of a frantic fourth quarter on Monday night.
But even as Garnett dangled on the rim for what seemed like forever after an alley-oop dunk and Allen summoned two beautiful jump shots from the past decade in those wild last minutes, the Celtics seemed a step behind. Philadelphia’s young players might have none of the pedigree and they're in these playoffs as the final seed. Yet the longer this series goes you get the sense they understand they can win here.
The Celtics could be down 0-2 in this series, and that has to alarm them at a level where even the old reliables – legacy, determination and resilience – might not save them. Their coach Doc Rivers sensed this after they barely won Game 1. For there rose in the Philadelphia 76ers something he didn’t want to see. Hope.
“I mean we played a Game 1 where we stole the game,” Rivers said after Monday’s 82-81 loss. “And so if you’re the other team, you have to have a little confidence coming in.”
So far this has been an ugly series, which is probably what you would expect from two teams that thrive defensively. Both Boston and Philadelphia are shooting 42 percent for the series, with the Celtics making just 27 percent of their 3-pointers. This will probably drag on for six or seven games, and after finishing a six-game series in the previous round following a grueling season without the normal off days, you have to wonder if age is wearing on Boston.
The Celtics played sluggishly through three quarters before bursting out in the fourth with a fire that looked to be enough to outlast a second game only to have it disappear late.
When Garnett finally emerged from the locker room dressed in a sweater and wearing glasses he said tersely: “We’re a better team so we’ll watch film and get better.”
But when asked how that will happen he replied: “If I told you that, I will have to kill you.”
Losses happen, especially in the playoffs, and teams can get grouchy as the games are magnified. Yet there was also a feeling around the Celtics' locker room that this defeat was more deflating than a typical Game 2 loss. It was seen across the hall as the Sixers players happily dressed and talked of gaining a new enthusiasm they might not have had a few days before.
“Our guys just keep growing and they’re really becoming men,” Sixers coach Doug Collins said. “We found a way. Again, I have to tell you all season long we couldn’t win these games and now our guys are believing they can do it and it’s pretty special to watch.”
Or as guard Jrue Holiday said: “We like playing against Boston. We think we match up well against them, and even though they had a smart play at the end of Game 1, we still had a chance in that game, so that’s definitely a confidence-booster.”
Late Monday the Celtics moved slowly through their locker room. Every few minutes a player would emerge from the trainers room wrapped in towels only to disappear in again. They seemed tired. They seemed worn.
“I don’t think we have a big margin of error,” Rivers said. “We knew that coming into this whole playoff run with the bodies we have. We have guys coming in and out of games, Paul is clearly not 100 percent.”
The question is whether they can pull enough from those bodies to keep stretching the season. With Chris Bosh out indefinitely in Miami, the chance has become greater for the Celtics to make one last NBA Finals run.
If only age and pain will allow them to do so.
Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
• Donovan McNabb loses 20 pounds to try to get back into NFL
• Mike Krzyzewski is coaching U.S. Olympic basketball team again even though it's a thankless job
• Michigan president admits hiring Rich Rodriguez was a bad move
• Shine: Beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh-Jennings almost lost out on Olympic dream