Celtics Discover Renewed Vigor In NBA Playoffs

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The Boston Celtics beat the Orlando Magic to win the opening game of the NBA Eastern Conference final, 92-88 Sunday. In the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Lakers host the Phoenix Suns on Monday night.

First, they stopped the unstoppable LeBron James. Yesterday, they beat the scorching hot Orlando Magic. And suddenly, the Boston Celtics in the NBA playoffs aren't looking as old and washed up as they did at times during this year's regular season. The Celtics' 92-88 win over Orland Sunday kicked off the best-of-seven series in the Eastern Conference Finals. Joining us is NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman.

Good morning.

TOM GOLDMAN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Why don't we begin with those suddenly frisky Boston Celtics? What's going on with them?

GOLDMAN: Well, I don't know if there's a fountain of youth, but I think what has happened is good health after a bunch of injuries during the regular season. And they're gelling at the right time. A good veteran team like Boston gets bored, frankly, during the long, regular season. They get excited for the playoffs, and it seems to be happening here.

Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said yesterday: I honestly say we lost ourselves. I think we've found ourselves again. And another thing: Beware aging championship players, especially those who've decided they're not done quite yet. It appears to be the case with the Celtics old timers. Now, that's old timers in NBA terms. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are approaching their mid-30s.

And it also helps to have a youngster, Rajon´┐ŻRondo, their 24-year-old point guard who's driving that team and playing the most exciting basketball of anyone left in the playoffs. So the Celtics were champions just two seasons ago. It appears they're intent on making another run.

MONTAGNE: And in the Western Conference Finals, the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers looked very strong in the previous series against a tough Utah Jazz team. Shouldn't L.A. be a heavy favorite against Phoenix?

GOLDMAN: Don't think so. I mean, the Lakers are favored. They're a big team with seven-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and they have this size advantage over Phoenix, and that gives them an advantage in the slow-paced, half-court game. So Phoenix wants to speed things up by running as much as possible, pushing the ball up the court. They've been famous for doing that in recent years.

This is a different Phoenix team, though. The Suns have been out-rebounding opponents in the playoffs. They just beat a very good San Antonio team four games to none in the last round of the playoffs. Phoenix's point guard Steve Nash, at 36, he's still a wizard with the ball in his hands. He's played more playoff games than anyone in NBA history without getting to the finals. This could be his best chance.

MONTAGNE: And, Tom, finally, there's a notable absence in this NBA Final Four. Cleveland had the best one-loss record in the regular season and the league's most talented player, LeBron James. But the Cavaliers and James flamed out last week against Boston. It might've been the end of his career in Cleveland, because James is now a free agent this summer. What's the latest on that?

GOLDMAN: Well, speculation continues on where he might sign after seven years in Cleveland. If he goes elsewhere - the front runners appear to be Chicago, New Jersey, New York. But, you know, there's definitely a different feel to the LeBron's sweepstakes, as they're called this summer.

After the debacle last week, Boston was the better team in that playoff series, and it proved again that one player can't win a title by himself. And now the talk is less wherever LeBron goes that team will be instant favorite to win the title and more LeBron will obviously make any team better. But to win a championship, he still needs another one, maybe two, star-quality players to help.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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