Kiki’s Keys to the Game: Lakers vs. Celtics

Two years can be an eternity in the NBA.

In 2008, when the Celtics beat the Lakers in the Finals, it was a clash of two great teams in their primes.

In 2010, when the Lakers turned the tables and earned their second straight title, Boston was just a little too old.

And now? When the NBA’s two most storied franchises meet Thursday night in Boston, it will be a game for the aged more than a game for the ages. That’s not meant to knock either team. It’s just the cold, hard reality of sports. You can’t beat Father Time. Eventually, he wins every time. But a lot of guys in this game are fighting him and you have to respect that.

The Celtics have seven players in their 30s, including their Big Three of Paul Pierce (34), Kevin Garnett (35) and Ray Allen (36). The Lakers have nine guys in their 30s, including Kobe Bryant (33), Pau Gasol (31), Metta World Peace (32) and Derek Fisher (37).

When a player hits 30, he’s not the same. I know I wasn’t. At that age, you still can do everything you could do before. It just takes a lot more effort to do it, so you don’t do it as often. You don’t see Garnett go for blocks as much. You don’t see Kobe dunk as much. They can still do it, but not all the time.

Instead, the great players adapt. Arguably, Kobe is a better basketball player now than he ever was. You still see flashes of the unbelievable athlete he is, but he relies more on his skill and footwork and smarts. To me, he’s just one of those special guys. He’s one of the most fundamentally sound players around and he keeps himself in superb condition. He’s gone from a high-flying act to a guy who gets most of his points on jumpers, but he still hits the toughest shots in the NBA.

Gasol is kind of the same in that he’s so skilled and talented, you don’t see many signs of age. Finesse players can last a long time because their success is based on fundamentals, not athletic ability.

It’s a little different for Boston’s big stars because they really are old now. Allen still is an incredible shooter — he’s making more than half his 3-pointers — but he’s averaging the fewest points (14.9) since his rookie season. Same with Garnett. He’s still a great defender but he’s clearly slowing down.

Pierce is starting to get into shape and do what he typically does. He’s shooting the 3 well. But he can’t create his own shot like he used to. When they won the championship, they could give the ball to Pierce at the high post, or let him run a pick-and-roll with Garnett, and he always was able to get off a good shot.

Now both teams really struggle to score at times, and that’s a sign of age. They can’t create their own shots as easily. They can’t run and get easy baskets. The schedule this season makes it tougher because there’s no time to rest. That favors fresh legs. And it’s even harder when you don’t have much depth, which is a big problem for both teams.

The Lakers lost Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown and now have one of the least productive benches in the league. The Celtics lost Jeff Green for the season, which was devastating.

What helps is having a young guy who is a rising star. For LA, that’s Andrew Bynum, who’s really emerged as one of the best centers in the league at both ends of the court. For Boston, it’s Rajon Rondo. He was just 21 when the Celtics won the title four years ago, but now he’s the best player on the team. He’s a tenacious defender and does all the little things you need to do to win. If the Celtics are running, it’s because Rondo is leading a fast break, sometimes by himself. It’s interesting that both Bynum and Rondo are the subject of a lot of trade rumors. Maybe it shows how valuable they are.

Thursday’s game isn’t going to be a track meet. It’s going to be more half-court, playoff-style basketball. That’s how these teams are built. And that’s why I don’t think you can write either one off.

Yes, the Lakers are 14-11 and in a four-way tie for fifth in the Western Conference, while the Celtics are 14-10 and seventh in the East. They’re just trying to survive the regular season. But in the playoffs, you get your normal rest and the game slows down. It’s more about defense, and that’s where these teams still are outstanding.

Boston holds teams to the lowest field-goal percentage, LA the second lowest. Both teams have excellent interior defense, with Bynum and Gasol vs. Garnett and Jermaine O’Neal. Whoever makes outside shots, as well as difficult contested shots, will win Thursday’s game. But defense is the constant because the two coaches, Mike Brown and Doc Rivers, are tough-minded, defensive coaches. They know if you play defense, you have a chance to win games.

Believe me, no one wants to see either team in the first round of the playoffs. It doesn’t really matter if they have home-court advantage. If they’re healthy, these teams are contenders. But that’s a big if.

Hey, I know how hard it is to do what these older guys are trying to do. When you’re in your early 20s, all you do is play basketball. Then life creeps in. When you’re 30, you have other relationships and responsibilities. You can’t play all the time or train as hard. Your body doesn’t let you.

When I was 25, I averaged 29.4 points. When I was 28, I averaged 26.9. After that, I was never the same. I had such bad back problems, I couldn’t run or jump anymore. It didn’t end my career because I never relied on quickness. I had to be a student of the game and outsmart my opponents. But when you can’t do the things you used to do, basketball becomes a lot less fun. That’s when you need to step aside and let the young guys go ahead.

Of course, neither one of these teams is going to step aside; nor should they. I’m just saying Father Time is closing in. This looks like the last hurrah for this group of Celtics.

And it may be for these Lakers, too.