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Talented but aging Celtics appear to be on their last legs


What's going on with the Celtics?

The Celtics are old. They are hobbled. They can't hold leads in crunch time against the good teams. They might (gulp) not make it to the NBA Finals.

On Sunday at home against the Lakers, the Celtics blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead and succumbed, 90-89, in a nationally televised game.

They committed five turnovers and made only two baskets in the final nine and a half minutes. This came three days after Boston blew a 16-point lead in Orlando. In between those debacles, the Celtics were beaten by the Atlanta Hawks for the fourth straight time this season.

The Celtics are old. They are On Golden Pond in the NBA. They are the Dream Team of the AARP. They are a team of Julio Francos. And suddenly, the old bones are cold bones.

In the summer of 2007, Boston GM Danny Ainge acquired Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. The two perennial All-Stars joined long-suffering star Paul Pierce to give Boston its new Big Three. The Celtics won the NBA Championship in their first year together and looked like they were on their way to another crown when Garnett went down with a knee injury last winter. Without their Ticket, the Celts were bounced from the playoffs by the Magic in a conference semifinal. In Game Seven. At home.

The natural order of the NBA universe was supposed to be restored when Garnett came back this year, but the Celts have never been 100 percent healthy. Glen Davis (broken thumb in a silly fight with his alleged best friend) was absent at the beginning of the season, then Marquis Daniels tore a ligament in his thumb. Then Garnett hyperextended the same knee that took him out last season. Old guys get hurt and take time to heal.

Other old guys (Rasheed Wallace, Eddie House), just get slower.

And now the Celtics can't put anybody away. Sunday's stunning loss at the Garden gave the Celtics a 6-8 record in January. It's the first losing month in the three-year history of the new Big Three. They can't finish. They have blown double-digit leads four times in their last seven games.

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Sunday's joust with the Lakers made me long for another Boston-Los Angeles Final. Boston's Rajon Rondo has emerged as an All-Star point guard and the Boston-L.A. matchups (Garnett-Pau Gasol, for instance) are irresistible, but it's starting to look like the Celtics might have a lot of trouble getting out of the East. The season is barely half over, but home court advantage appears to be slipping away from the Green. The Celtics trail the Cavaliers by five games in the loss column and go into Monday night's game trailing Orlando and Atlanta. In 2007, Boston won seven games at home against the Hawks and Cavaliers. You need home court to survive the NBA playoffs.

Winning the title this spring is crucial for Boston. When Garnett and Allen came on board, we figured this was going to be a three-year window for championship opportunity and the expiration date is nearing. Allen's contract is up at the end of the season. Garnett is only 33, but has been playing in the league since 1995, which makes him 43 in basketball years. He's already played more seasons than Larry Bird. His knee doesn't seem to be responding and it was hard to watch Rashard Lewis blow past him for the winning bucket in Orlando. He took only nine shots against the Lakers. If Garnett can't return to form, the Celtics have no chance.

All of that said, there were signs of encouragement Sunday. The Celtics came back from a 13-point first-quarter deficit. In a galaxy of stars, Rondo looked like the best player on the court. Gasol was completely neutralized and Kobe wasn't able to exert his will until the final 10 seconds of the game.

It would be a mistake to dismiss the Celtics on the basis of the horrid January and the three straight losses. Daniels is almost ready to come back. He can guard enemy scorers and his presence will give Allen, Garnett and Pierce a little more rest down the stretch.

Ainge is a patient man. He's not likely to make a deal.

The playoffs cannot start soon enough for this aging band of basketball brothers. Sunday's game was like a playoff game. But the Boston legs look old.

On the wall of my home office I have a copy of the Sports Illustrated cover from April 28, 1969 (50 cents, in case you were wondering). The cover photo features Bill Russell taking it to the basket on the parquet floor. The Celtics finished fourth in the division that year with a record of 48-34. Then they beat the Sixers, Knicks and Lakers in three playoff series to win their 11th championship in 13 seasons. It was Russell's last season. Same for Sam Jones.

The headline on that SI cover reads "Boston's Old Guard/The Last Stand.'' That's what this feels like.

Boston's Old Guard.

The Last Stand.