NEW YORK -- Forgive Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers if he's a bit wistful watching 40-year-old Jason Kidd do all the little things for the New York Knicks. It's easy to forget that two decades ago, the two often matched up against against each other in Texas showdowns (Rivers wrapping up a 13-year playing career in San Antonio, while Kidd was starting a 20-seasons-and-counting career in Dallas).
The 51-year-old Rivers can see the unavoidable effects of Father Time, but Kidd's mind is still so sharp that he makes the sort of plays that could tilt a playoff series in his team's favor, as the Celtics found out during Game 1 of their first-round series Saturday in New York.
"I don't know if I can beat Jason in a sprint, but I think I can give him a go," quipped Rivers. "Yet he got steals, no one could go by him. I mean, he's so smart. And I use a [Bill] Belichick line all the time, all these people go to the draft combine and they get all excited about what the guy ran in the 40, instead of looking at the film to see who gets there first with their mind. And that's what Jason did [Saturday] night. I mean, he had two steals, man ... there's guys 10 times quicker than him who would have never gotten them. But he sees it before it happens, and he reacts. And he's beating people with his mind right now. He beat us [Saturday] night, for sure."
Kidd's play only reminds Rivers of what his team lacks this season. For years, pundits needled Boston about its over-the-hill rosters, and every May, the Celtics responded with a sustained playoff run with help from a veteran cast.
This year, the seventh-seeded Celtics occupy the rare distinction of being the less-veteran team in a first-round series.
Yes, it was the Knicks who endured all those nursing home barbs this season, but they weathered all the injuries that invariably come along with an older team, then wrestled the Atlantic Division title from Boston. Now, New York is looking to put a stranglehold on this first-round series when it hosts Boston in Game 2 on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Rivers can't stop gushing about New York's veteran players, who have played a monster role in the team's dominance of Boston in their five meetings this season, including Saturday's playoff opener (New York went 4-1 in those games).
"I thought it was a very good strategy, actually," Rivers said of New York adding battle-tested bodies. "Just because of [the playoffs]."
Veteran bodies, aided by the additional rest from the forgiving postseason schedule, tend to be difference-makers. The Celtics know that all too well with the sort of role that then-38-year-old P.J. Brown played on the 2007-08 championship team. Heck, even then-35-year-old Rasheed Wallace -- one of those veteran bodies the Knicks had around this season before injury forced him back into retirement last week -- nearly helped Boston to a Game 7 victory in Los Angeles during the 2010 Finals.
This year, the Celtics' available roster has only three players older than 30. Two of those are stalwarts Kevin Garnett (36) and Paul Pierce (35), while the other is Jason Terry (35), who has been unable to live up to his lofty big-game, big-shot reputation this season.
Rivers has gone out of his way this season to often downplay the lingering notion that Boston was a "veteran" team. The Celtics lost a key member of the core when 37-year-old Ray Allen defected to rival Miami, while the season-ending injury to Rajon Rondo stripped Boston of its playoff-tested quarterback.
For Boston, the only available player beyond Garnett and Pierce who was on the floor for the Eastern Conference finals last season is Brandon Bass. Third-year guard Avery Bradley, who played in his first first full postseason in 2012, was injured against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, while Jeff Green sat out the entire season while undergoing heart surgery.
Boston's bench this season -- beyond Terry and his 2011 championship ring -- is somewhat vacant of playoff experience. This is the first postseason rodeo for Jordan Crawford, Terrence Williams, D.J. White, Fab Melo and even 11th-year big man Chris Wilcox. Shavlik Randolph appeared in two playoff games (for a whopping four minutes) for Philadelphia in 2008, while Courtney Lee was a key member of the Magic's run to the NBA Finals as a rookie in 2009, but hasn't been back to the postseason since.
During Saturday's game, running with a tightened three-man bench of Crawford, Lee and Terry, Boston's reserves were held without a field goal and generated four points overall. Kidd gave New York eight points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals over 35 minutes, while making some key hustle plays in helping the Knicks grab the opener.
The Celtics can't lean on lack of playoff experience as an excuse. According to the wizards at ESPN Stats & Information, Boston's Game 1 lineup had the exact same amount of playoff experience (436 total games) between eight players as the seven-man combo Boston utilized to start last year's playoffs.
But it's the chemistry and the continuity that Rivers yearns for; how a veteran could just jump right into the mix on a good team and carve out a role because of his experience. With three players lost to injury this season, the Celtics had a chance to add a veteran -- maybe even someone like Knicks big man Kenyon Martin, who had 10 points and nine rebounds in 28:26 on Saturday. Instead, Boston went the opposite route and signed some young talent with future potential. None of those three players stepped on the floor Saturday.
Veterans are a gamble, but they are invaluable this time of year. Which is why Rivers gets a bit nostalgic watching Kidd. Forty years old and he's still running circles at times around players nearly half his age. The Celtics can only hope some of their younger players perform beyond their years if they are to make another postseason run this year.