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Aging Celtics continue to defy Father Time

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Sam Gardner

Sam Gardner is a general assignment writer for FOXSports.com. Originally from Orlando, Fla., he previously covered the Orlando Magic for FOX Sports Florida and has also covered the NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals and MLB playoffs. Follow him on Twitter.

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BOSTON

This was supposed to be the year Father Time finally caught up with the Boston Celtics.

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This was supposed to be the year they finally realized they’re too old and too slow and too fragile to compete with the NBA’s rising stars.

This was supposed to be the year the Celtics finally relinquished their hold on the Atlantic Division and stepped to the side, giving the Knicks or Sixers — younger teams with brighter futures — a shot at glory.

That’s what everyone said.

But everyone was wrong. And on Wednesday night, paced by Paul Pierce’s 29 points and 14 assists, Boston wrapped up an improbable Atlantic Division championship and the No. 4 seed in the East with a 102-98 win over the Orlando Magic.

There was no celebration to speak of, of course. That’s not the Celtics’ style. When you win five straight division titles — and when you play for a franchise that once won 10 championships in 11 years and dominated an entire era of professional basketball — you learn how to put success in perspective.

But somehow — whether it’s a result of the compressed post-lockout season, or the creaky joints in the Celtics locker room and the increasingly low expectations the come with them, or perhaps, even, the realization this actually could be Boston’s last hurrah — this one seemed a little more special than the others.

“It’s funny, we were kidding in the locker room, because I really — I usually, honestly, don’t say much about it,” coach Doc Rivers said of the division crown, his sixth since taking over in 2004. “I don’t know if I’ve ever congratulated the team for winning one.

“But I did tell them, I said, ‘Guys, I know it’s not a big deal to us — and it isn’t, because we’re not in this to win divisions — but we were two games under .500 at All-Star break and the fact that you did it and did it this early, I think, is very impressive.’ And it was.”

When the players broke for All-Star weekend in late February, Boston was bordering on irrelevant. The Celtics were 15-17, losers of five straight and seven of eight going in, and just barely clinging to the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.

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During the season’s first half, the Celtics played the kind of tough defense you’d expect of a veteran squad, holding opponents to 41.8 percent shooting over their first 32 games. But they scored just 89.4 points per game themselves, and over the final eight games leading up the break, allowed 94.5. They were outscored by nearly 10 points a night.

Just making the postseason, it seemed, would be challenging enough for the aging club, and competing for the division title seemed like an overwhelming task at the time. There was talk of blowing up the roster and trading in the aging parts while they still had at least a little value remaining.

Most in the basketball world thought this was the Celtics’ endgame, and their gradual demise and Danny Ainge’s forthcoming rebuilding job was discussed ad nauseum.

But Boston, it turned out, had other plans. The  Celts changed the way they played. They never stopped pushing, despite a host of injuries and a relentless schedule. They bought into a system and played as a team, allowing younger guys such as Avery Bradley to step up when the team needed a spark.

“This team doesn’t let egos get in the way of playing solid basketball,” Rivers said.

As a result, the Celtics have gone 22-9 since the break and have scored 95 points per game on 46.8 percent shooting. And while their offense has picked up, their defense has held strong, limiting teams to 42 percent shooting and 30.7 percent from 3-point range.

"One of the hardest things I’ve always said in this league is to secure chemistry," 35-year-old forward Kevin Garnett said. "I knew at some point we'd hit a rhythm and ride that rhythm out, and I think that's what you've seen since the All-Star break."

And now here they are, right where they’ve always been — and yet where no one expected them to be.

"Never count us out," Garnett said — or warned — Wednesday, scanning reporters gathered in the Celtics locker room following the division-clinching victory.

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"I mean, you guys called us old, over. You know, I read some of your pathetic articles and some of your lousy analysis. It's opinion. I mean, obviously, you don't know what drives us. We thank y'all for those articles. Appreciate it. Because it lit a fire under us."

With the No. 4 seed locked up and the No. 3 seed out of reach, don’t be surprised to see the Celtics take it easy over their final three games of the regular season as they wait to see whether they’ll face Atlanta or Orlando in the first round — they visit the Hawks on Friday night.

And when the playoffs get started, they’ll be rested up and ready. Because while everyone else tells them they’ve overachieved, the Celtics will continue to believe they have more to accomplish.

They don’t know any other way.

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner

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