NBA

Lakers, Celtics prove you can be better with age

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LOS ANGELES (AP)

Except for his purple and gold uniform, Derek Fisher would fit right in with the Boston Celtics.

After all, he's old.

So is Kobe Bryant, when it comes to basketball years. Both are in their early to-mid 30s, just like the core of Boston's roster.

Hold off on those old-timers' day games, though. There are still NBA finals ones to be played.

This series, which the Lakers led 1-0 going into Game 2 on Sunday night, is proving that it's possible to become better with age.

Bryant, the MVP of last year's finals, is playing some of the best basketball of his career, finer than when the Lakers won three straight titles from 2000-02.

Fisher remembers chasing around Allen Iverson in the finals during the second of those championship series. He's still finding ways to slow down the speedsters, only now on 35-year-old legs.

``So now, almost 10 years later, playing against guys that are maybe faster or quicker, that's something that I'm not afraid of,'' Fisher said. ``I still look forward to using my brain, using my body, using my size, using my experience to try and nullify and limit what they do to the best of my ability.''

Too old is a popular basketball criticism, the one used this season to discount the Celtics as a true title contender. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen looked all of their 34 years in Boston's 102-89 loss in Game 1, and Paul Pierce isn't much younger.

``We're not a young team. I can't say that Ray is 29 and lie; he's not. But it doesn't affect how we play,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. ``I'm just stating a fact we are an older team, but we're not too old. You know what I mean?

``We are an older team, we have experience. We have great experience, and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm fine with that, and I have no problem with that. But I don't run from that fact. But we're not too old.''

In these finals between longtime rivals, the closest thing to trash talk so far was Pau Gasol's misinterpreted comments which made it appear he was calling Garnett old. In fact, he was discussing how they were different players since Gasol entered the league nine years ago - and Gasol said it's that age that's made him a better player even as it's diminished his physical skills.

``I understand better the nature of the game here. I grew as far as my body and how do I play the game,'' he said. ``So I could say that I'm a more mature player and more effective now than I was before (when) I was athletic, lanky.

``I had more explosiveness than I have now, but I was weaker, also, and I wasn't accustomed to the physicality of the league and the amount of games that are played. But little by little I've gotten better, and I've grown to be the player that I am today.''

Bryant is no longer much of a high flyer - he and Allen were in the same slam dunk contest as rookies way back in 1997. Yet despite nagging injuries that keep him off the practice floor, his overall level of play has never been higher.

He averaged 33.7 points in the Western Conference finals, third-best playoff series of his career, and shot 52 percent from the field. He also averaged 7.2 rebounds and 8.3 assists, perhaps the most magnificent of his 39 career postseason series.

``Now he's capable of making the play that makes the play. That's a big distinction,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. ``In hockey we still give them an assist, but in basketball we don't. That's a big distinction as to making the team react to what he's doing so he can create an offensive opportunity for somebody else.''

The regular-season games are tougher for the old guys, who realize the only ones that really matter are played in the spring. The Celtics never could keep their intensity up in the second half of this season, and the Lakers' veterans know their minds will wander in the winter as well.

``As a younger player I tried to just learn from the older guys,'' Bryant said. ``I understood that really it's a body of work at the end of the day that you're going to be measured by. It's not by a game on a Tuesday night in February or March or whatever.''

The summer will be about the young stars, when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade hit the free agent market. Meanwhile, the 30-somethings in Boston and Los Angeles will be working toward making another June matchup possible.

For now, the NBA finals still belong to the old guys.

``In July, August and September, it's really easy to take a step back and enjoy the family even more, take more vacations, have a couple more glasses of wine, whatever you like to do to relax,'' Fisher said. ``But I really take a lot of pride in keeping my feet to the fire in the offseason and setting the foundation and the base for being able to play all 82 games and basically do whatever my team needs me to do in order for us to win.''

Tagged: Celtics, Lakers, 76ers, Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Pau Gasol

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