To tighten its stranglehold on a weak division, Boston brought in Shaq and re-signed Ray Allen, a 35-year-old who gives new meaning to the word sprightly

The two high school players were thrashing, trying to keep up with the old-timer on the elliptical machine next to them. "We're going to beat you," wheezed one teen at a Hartford health club last summer.

"You won't," boomed the man, sounding like a Marine gunnery sergeant on Parris Island. "Because I'm the best in shape of anyone you'll ever find doing this."

After putting them through 30 increasingly dizzying minutes, Celtics shooting guard Ray Allen invited his new acquaintances to follow him to the treadmills. He had already taken one of the curious kids through his workout of bench presses, curls, shoulder lifts and push-ups—it happened to be an upper-body day for Allen—with little or no rest in between each set. Now the teenager's teammate had asked if they could join in for an hour of brutal cardio training, culminating in a half hour of sprinting in which Allen hiked up the speed in 30-second increments.

The Hartford Public High players were doubled over when Allen stepped off the treadmill. "I told them, 'How does that feel that I'm 20 years older than both of you guys and you can't keep up with me?'" recalls Allen. "I was giving them crap, but I wanted them to know if you guys want to be great you need to be in great condition. I said, 'I'm 35 years old—how am I beating you guys?'"

Allen will likely be asking that question of many an NBA two guard this season: The future Hall of Famer has extended his career by beating the league's most explosive athletes at their own game. Consider the fusion of athleticism and skill necessary for Allen to outrace younger defenders night after night, slaloming through an obstacle course of picks at full speed before coming to a complete stop just as the ball arrives, then catching and hoisting it up in one corkscrewing motion to release a three-pointer, a shot most players can't consistently hit during a game of H-O-R-S-E. "Every morning you come in the gym before practice, and Ray's already got a lather up because he's been out there shooting for an hour," says Boston coach Doc Rivers. "And you turn to your coaches and say, 'I wonder why he's a good shooter?'"

Sometime after the All-Star break Allen should convert his 117th three of the season to break the alltime record of 2,560, held by Reggie Miller. Allen has joined Miller and Michael Jordan as the only shooting guards in the last decade to play at an All-Star level in their mid-30s. At 6'5" and 205 pounds Allen takes pride in maintaining a 29-inch waist, noting that his face was "chubbier" in the late 1990s when he was an emerging All-Star with the Bucks. Though Allen averaged a 13-year low of 16.3 points last season, he was easily the most consistent member of Boston's Big Three while averaging 35.2 minutes over 80 starts, second on the team in both categories to 24-year-old point guard Rajon Rondo. "They say they're getting old, but our older guys take great care of their bodies," says Rondo. "Ray is always on the treadmill, he's always in the pool. He's in the best shape of his life, and he runs the most on the court of anybody on our team."

A rare sign of decline in Allen came in the championship series against the Lakers in June. After he set a Finals record by making eight threes (in only 11 attempts) to lead the Celtics to a 103--94 win in Game 2 at Los Angeles, he missed 24 of 28 from behind the arc, culminating in a 3-for-14 performance from the field in an 83--79 loss in Game 7. What went unrecognized—because the Celtics and Allen chose to keep it secret—was that his lift had been hampered by a right thigh bruise he picked up early in Game 3, when he darted into the lane and was kneed by the Lakers' Ron Artest. Allen says he should have known that L.A. would focus on him after his 32-point outburst the previous game. "I didn't have my wits about me like I should have," says Allen. "I know what type of reputation [Artest] has as far as being a guy that is willing to bang down there. I look at it and wish that I could have it back, because that's one cut that I would have avoided. Even at this stage of my career it was something [to learn], that you can't be too arrogant in your way of going about how you do your job, because the game will humble you."

Allen's response to the injury deepened his coach's respect for him. "Listen, I thought Ray had one of the best defensive games in history at the two guard the way he defended Kobe in Game 7 ... and he did it on that leg," says Rivers of Bryant's 6-of-24 performance from the field. "It showed me who he was: Ray couldn't do much at all—he couldn't jump—but he played and he never complained."

Rather than dismiss the age of their stars as a weakness, the Celtics chose to add more veterans. To fill in for center Kendrick Perkins, who isn't expected back until February after suffering a torn right ACL in Game 6 of the Finals, Boston signed a pair of behemoth O'Neals—38-year-old Shaquille and 32-year-old Jermaine. That should bolster the team's front line and its board work; the Celtics ranked 29th in rebounding last season. Instead of replacing Allen with a younger pair of legs, they re-signed him for $20 million over two years. "I hope that I'm an example," says Allen, "not only for my teammates, but for the kids who watch and even for the guys I play against."

The Celtics' conversion from losers to champs began in June 2007, when coming off a 24-win season, they traded for Allen, which in turn persuaded Kevin Garnett to accept a trade to Boston. That turnaround should serve as a model to the Celtics' ambitious rivals in this otherwise sorry division. The Atlantic is home to four of the eight largest TV markets in North America, and over the NBA's initial 40 years, 22 championships were won by Boston, Philadelphia and New York. But the Knicks and the 76ers have been woeful over the last decade, squandering their abundant resources on exorbitant contracts for mediocre talent. "There's never been a consistency in who runs the ship," Allen says of the impatience of Boston's rivals in the Atlantic, "so it's been hard to keep a consistent model."

The 76ers' surprising decision last summer to hire team president Rod Thorn indicates they have learned from those mistakes. A decade ago Thorn converted New Jersey from laughingstock to two-time NBA Finalist by making smart draft picks and trading for Jason Kidd. Now he will count on new coach Doug Collins to establish a defensive foundation as Philadelphia launches a long-haul approach to build a contender. Collins is notorious for burning himself out, but the former Sixers guard, who last coached in 2002--03 with the Wizards, insists that he has returned refreshed to develop good habits for No. 2 pick Evan Turner, point guard Jrue Holiday and athletic forward Thaddeus Young. "I'm here to teach these guys," says Collins.

The same long-term vision has yet to be exhibited by the Knicks, who spent the last two years unloading most of their expensive contracts and draft picks in a naive attempt at recruiting some combination of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh last summer. Instead they wound up signing 6'10" Amar'e Stoudemire to a five-year max deal worth $99.7 million, which has led to rumblings in the New York press that owner James Dolan was critical of team president Donnie Walsh's tactics. Another change in management may be on the way unless coach Mike D'Antoni can magically create winning fast-break offense with Bobcats castoff Raymond Felton at the point and a frontcourt that appears unlikely to defend or rebound consistently.

The Raptors occupy the fifth-largest market in North America, but after Bosh's departure to Miami as a free agent they must begin to rebuild from the bottom of the East around 7-foot Andrea Bargnani, the top pick in 2006. They'll hope to avoid the misery endured last season by the 70-loss Nets, who are promising to bounce back with new coach Avery Johnson and No. 3 pick Derrick Favors, an athletic power forward out of Georgia Tech who will team with third-year center Brook Lopez. Their next move may be to land unhappy Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony, which could give them a star-power advantage over rival New York before the Nets move to Brooklyn in two years.

The title-obsessed Celtics won't spend this year worrying about the shenanigans elsewhere in their division. Allen even insists they're too focused on self-improvement to be distracted by the suddenly glamorous Heat, whose Big Three is younger and more explosive than Boston's. "If you put it in Star Wars terms, the dark side is always there," says Allen, noting that his team fended off challenges from the younger Cavaliers and Magic last year. "The force is strong with us, and those are the challenges you look forward to." They can make an old man feel young.

Worst Case They recognize that there is no best-case scenario for this year. Toronto—which couldn't make the playoffs the past two seasons, when it had a franchise player in Bosh—lacks star power and leadership.

SIGNING TWO BEHEMOTH O'NEALS SHOULD ADDRESS BOSTON'S ONE GLARING WEAKNESS: REBOUNDING.

TRADING FOR ANTHONY WOULD GIVE THE NETS A STAR-POWER ADVANTAGE OVER RIVAL NEW YORK.

"THERE'S NEVER BEEN A CONSISTENCY IN WHO RUNS THE SHIP," SAYS ALLEN OF THE CELTICS' RIVALS.

PHOTOPhotograph by PETER READ MILLERADDING INSIGHT TO INJURY Allen learned yet another valuable lesson about taking care of himself after Artest hounded—and wounded—him during the Finals. PHOTOBOB ROSATO (RONDO) PHOTONOAH GRAHAM/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (IGUODALA) PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLA (O'NEAL)IF YOU CAN'T BEAT 'EM ... After his Cavs were bounced by Boston, Shaq signed with the Celtics for a 19th season. PHOTOBOB ROSATO (RIVERS)HAPPY DOC Rivers has plenty to smile about, including a veteran shooting guard who is usually at the gym when the Celtics' coach shows up for work. PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLA (HARRIS) PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLA PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLAGOOD BROOK The future is bright in New Jersey thanks to Lopez, the rare Atlantic center who is both young enough and talented enough to build around. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (BARGNANI) PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER (STOUDEMIRE)THREE STRIKES The Knicks inked Stoudemire (1) after whiffing on James, Wade and Bosh, which brought the team's cap-clearing strategy under fire.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)