ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Plopped on the couch in his living room, Stan Van Gundy was watching Boston blow past Cleveland in the Eastern Conference semifinals and thought it was some sort of replay from the Celtics’ 2008 NBA title run.
There were the familiar scenes: Kevin Garnet pounding his chest, Ray Allen swishing 3-pointers and Paul Pierce pumping his fist. Boston was winning, and winning big.
Orlando’s coach was perplexed.
“If you look at them, that’s the (same) team,” Van Gundy said. “What would be the difference?”
These days, it might be hard to tell.
Turning back the clock to make another championship run, the resurgent Celtics are healthy again and looking to take down the playoff-perfect Orlando Magic starting Sunday in an Eastern Conference finals pitting the past two conference champions.
The Celtics, with 17 NBA titles and names such as Larry Bird and Bill Russell hanging from the rafters, want to add to their lore and prove that the bullies from Beantown are back. They’ll have to do it against a favored Orlando team that’s hungry to win its first NBA championship.
“Orlando was the team coming into the season where if you wanted to get out of the East, you had to beat Orlando,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “They’re the team that won the East last year, not Cleveland, and I want to make sure our guys focus on that.”
The motivated Magic, spurred by last year’s NBA finals loss, swept through the first two rounds and have won 14 straight going back to the regular season. They eliminated the Celtics in seven games in the second round a year ago, and went 3-1 against Boston this year.
That might not mean much now.
Garnett, the centerpiece of Boston’s last title, was out with a right knee injury in last year’s playoffs and is now close to full strength for the first time since. Orlando’s starting point guard, Jameer Nelson, also was sidelined with a tear in his right shoulder last season.
Add some fresh faces — headlined by Vince Carter for the Magic and Rasheed Wallace for the Celtics — and put a conference title at stake, and this year’s series is getting a facelift.
“You’re talking about pretty much two different teams,” Pierce said. “It should be an interesting matchup.”
The roles are now reversed.
The Magic are the ones with home-court advantage, rolling past Atlanta and Charlotte in the opening rounds. They have peaked at the right time, winning 28 of their last 31 games, many in blowouts.
“I think for us if we want to win the series, we have to do all the things we did in the first two series,” Orlando’s Dwight Howard said. “And if we do that, we should win. We should win this series, but we all have to believe that and we have to understand that it’s not going to be easy.”
The Magic will have had six days between series and plenty of practices. They also had time to watch Boston take out LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers with Garnett, who turns 34 next week, leading the way.
Too old to challenge for a title? The Magic don’t believe it.
“There’s no possible way somebody could have watched their 11 playoff games and think that age is any problem,” Van Gundy said. “The only way people could say that is they literally could not have been watching the games.
“I think a lot of what people were calling slippage was health-related,” he added. “All I know is what I’m watching, not only in the Cleveland series but the Miami series, does not look like a team on the decline.”
Before the Magic eliminated the Celtics last season, the series was already being labeled with an asterisk: Garnett was out. It didn’t matter much that Nelson wasn’t playing.
Though the Magic don’t know how a healthy Garnett would have affected last year’s matchup, they know he’ll be a factor come Sunday.
“It’s hard to say,” Magic forward Rashard Lewis said of last year. “I think it would have been a lot tougher. We beat them in seven. It’s hard to say if we could have beat them without him, and we’ll see if we can beat them this time with him.”
So consider this a remix, with a few oldies added in.
That includes the Magic’s biggest offseason acquisition, the 33-year-old Carter. He takes offense to any slights about age because, after all, he’s in the same 1995 high school class as Garnett and Pierce.
In the conference finals for the first time in his career, Carter intends to make it count. He has warned all his teammates that there’s nobody on Boston too old to compete.
“When I hear them say, ‘Oh, you know, they’re old as far as Kevin and Paul.’ Well, we all came out in ’95 together,” Carter said. “The old guys can still hang with some of the young pups.”