The NBA Postseason: New Country for Old Men

I once asked Ray Allen how Paul Pierce does it? How does the old man still get it done with that old man game, that YMCA, back-sweating, back-you-down, shirts-and-skins old man game?

At the time, they were both in Boston, coming off a previous championship run that ended just 12 minutes short of an NBA title. At age 33, Pierce would average 18.9 points per game that year, shooting a shade below 50%. He made the All-Star Game, and then pumped in nearly 21 a night in the postseason.

“As you get older,” Allen told me, “you start to develop other interests and you have kids and some things that you did before, you kind of let fall to the wayside. And then your game slips a little bit. And then you have to go to different ways to play or you don’t shoot certain shots or make certain moves.”

Allen was 35 that year, and he might’ve been even better than Pierce, playing the most minutes of anyone on the team. He had never shot 49% from the floor before…until 2011, and he had never shot 44% from deep…until 2011.

“And not only that,” Allen would continue, “you have to be on a team that is conducive and catering to what you bring to the table. So it’s never something that you can determine. I think guys are lucky if you can play for a long period of time.”

Allen might call it luck, but that’s hard to quantify while seeing so many great stars of a past generation still producing. Yes, Allen is lucky to be on the Heat and play off of the best player in the world. But you still have to make the shots.

That’s all Ray Allen did during Miami’s pivotal Game 3 ECF win against Indiana, lighting up the shell-shocked Pacers for 16 second half points, dropping one back-breaking triple after another, every one of them driving the proverbial stake deeper and deeper until the Pacers had all but given up, all of them adding up to a performance that had been building all season.

Allen has been the leading scorer on a contender before. But it morphing into a complimentary shooter he’s been magical and it’s one of the reasons he’s still going at nearly 39 years-old.

Allen’s hold on the all-time three-point shooting numbers is laughable. Should he come back next season, he will pass the 3,000 mark for career triples. Reggie Miller is the only other player who’s even made 2,000. Allen has also taken nearly 1,000 more three-pointers than any other player in history. He’s made more clutch shots than perhaps any player of the last 15 years, and should pass Jerry West and Reggie Miller in career scoring next season.

Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports

He’s not the only old man still defying the basketball gods. Vince Carter, Tim Duncan and the aforementioned Paul Pierce all had their moments this spring. Carter hit a game-winning buzzer-beater against San Antonio in the first round, and averaged 14 points over the series’ last five games. What was more surprising: seeing VC succeed as a role-playing 37-year-old or knowing he has entered into the top 25 in career points? Two more years at his current pace and Carter might cross 25,000.

Piece, too, has found his wheelhouse as an aging but productive vet. Kevin Garnett had a bitterly disappointing season marked by injury and ineffectualness. But at age 36, Pierce’s per-36 minute averages—17.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 1.5 steals on 51/37/83 shooting splits—marked a different trajectory for the elderly. He put up similar numbers in the playoffs, all while crossing 3,000 career postseason points. Two more years and Paul Pierce will finish in the top ten all time in career points. Read that again.

Then there’s Duncan, an unmerciful basketball machine if ever there was one. Let the highlights show Serge Ibaka blocking Duncan’s shot in Game 3 rather than his Game 1 performance when he put up 27 points in 29 minutes, or the 22 points and 12 boards he had in less than 30 minutes in Game 5, or the 19 points and 15 rebounds he had in Game 6, busting up Ibaka down the stretch. The numbers indicate the Big Swim is on his way to yet another 17-point, nine-rebound playoff run, which would only be the…oh…15th season he’s done that.

Dirk Nowitzki might be the best example of old man flourish. Nowitzki, once thought to be too soft for the NBA, has outlasted Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace. At nearly 36 years old, Dirk unleashed an overlooked gem this year. Caught up as we all are in declaring the next big thing—Blake can finally play! LaMarcus Aldridge is a beast!—many missed Dirk’s best season in three years. He averaged almost 22 points a night. He was mere percentage points away from a 50/40/90 season. He pushed Dallas back into the playoffs. And he nearly pulled off another big upset over San Antonio.

Whether it’s from specialized training, dieting, advances in rehab and surgery, or any other improvements made over the last two decades, great players are playing great for longer than they ever have. If we hadn’t picked up on that by now, this season drove the point home for good. Maybe it’s not as memorable as peak greatness but it’s more satisfying.

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