BOSTON — TON - While Father Time isn't exactly hawking down the Boston Celtics' Big Three like Usain Bolt does most track sprinters, there's no question he's gaining ground quickly.
But even with an aging core of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, along with a talented but sometimes tempestuous playmaker extraordinaire in Rajon Rondo, the Celtics will have at least two mountains to climb — better known to you and I as the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls — before they can reclaim a spot atop the Eastern Conference.
And when you throw in the fact that the 149-day NBA lockout has reduced the season to 66 games, bringing home Banner 18 will be tough for the C's.
"It's not going to be easy," Pierce said. "It wasn't easy when we won it all in '08, and it won't be easy to win it again."
It won't be easy.
In fact, it'll be tougher — a lot tougher.
Forget about avoiding injuries, or getting a few lucky breaks along the way or any of those all-too-common cliches teams say have to happen in order to have a great season.
No amount of luck or health is going to change the fact that the Celtics, one of the oldest teams in the league in recent years, continue to get, well, old.
"I know when you look at the league, it is getting younger," Garnett said. "Obviously, we're a veteran team. But one thing you can't teach is experience."
And as far as all the talk about the team's window of competing for a championship being closed, well, it has a certain Ground Hog's Day feel to the Big Three.
"Ever since we came together, we've been hearing about this window (of opportunity) being closed or about to close," Allen said. "We don't pay any attention to that stuff. We know every year if we do what we're capable of, we'll be able to compete for a championship. We don't spend any time, nor do we care about any windows opening and closing."
They may not, but Celtics Nation does.
And when you look at one of the main reasons why this team of basketball relics is still considered relevant in the conversation of teams that can win a championship, two words for you: Rajon Rondo.
I know, I know.
The Celtics were more than willing to move Rondo for Chris Paul, and were simply a "let's do it!" from the Hornets away from a deal. But New Orleans, which eventually shipped Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers, was never enamored enough with Rondo to pull the trigger on such a trade.
There's no question that Rondo, who at times hasn't handled things not going his way very well (there was the sulking for weeks after his BFF Kendrick Perkins got traded and reportedly smashing a water bottle into a video screen, that immediately come to mind), was bothered by all the trade talk.
"You guys may have heard the (trade) rumors, and they might have been true," Rondo said. "He (Danny Ainge, Boston's president of basketball operations) may have been shopping me, but I felt comfortable. I been here just working."
For all the flaws to Rondo's game, like free-throw shooting and making open jumpers, he's still the perfect fit for this team as it stands now. Without him, the window of opportunity for this group would have closed a couple years ago.
"When a guy like Chris Paul is on the trading block, Boston didn't really have much of a choice but to explore it," said one rival head coach. "But you look at that team, the way they are with the Big Three. Chris would have helped them in some areas, like scoring. But I still think for what they like to do, for what Doc (Rivers, the Celtics' head coach) needs from that position, Rondo is the absolute perfect player for their system."
And to a man, the Big Three with their Hall of Fame-like credentials, totally get this.
"He's the face of the franchise heading into the future," said Pierce, who currently holds that distinction. "You can say all you want to about Rondo, 'he can't do this, he can't do that.' But he's a great point guard, one of the best in the game. And at the end of the day, he's a winner. No one can take that away from him."
And while the idea of the season being shortened to 66 games may seem to favor a veteran team like the Celtics, think again.
Fewer games in a compressed schedule will actually put even more wear and tear on their bodies, than a typical 82-game season.
Having fewer games also means fewer opportunities for the body to recover, which has been essential to the C's in recent years.
That's part of the thinking behind Rivers anticipating the minutes for the Big Three to be reduced some this season.
And while it's pretty common for Rivers to play his bench extended minutes early in the season, do not be surprised if you see the Celtics utilizing 11 or 12 players all the way up to, and including, the playoffs.
"If we're going to have the kind of season we envision, our bench is going to be a big part, an active part, in that happening," Allen said. "Your bench is always important. But the way our team is made up, they're going to be even more important this season."
"We're going to have to have contributions, from a lot of guys people probably don't expect us to have contributions from," he said. "I expect guys like Avery Bradley to step up this year and get some court time."
Pierce later mentioned players like newly acquired forwards Chris Wilcox and Brandon Bass, as well as veteran guard Keyon Dooling, as being important — if not more important — to the team's success than the Big Three.
One key reserve the Celtics won't have this season is Jeff Green, who will undergo cardiac surgery on Jan. 9.
"We're a lot deeper than we have been in years past," Pierce said. "We're going to need a special year from at least one or two of us."
But even a special year might not be enough to emerge as the top team in the East.
There's little doubt that the Miami Heat will go into this season as the odds-on favorite to get back to the NBA finals.
The Heat's Big Three is a year older now — and that's not a good thing for the Celtics.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are all in their mid-to-late 20s (Wade will be 30 next month), a time when most NBA players are at their peak talent-wise.
After a sometimes rocky first year in South Beach together, they got their act together when it counted most — the playoffs — and advanced all the way to the NBA finals before losing out to the Dallas Mavericks.
You can expect Miami to be even better this year for the same reason the Celtics are constantly in the mix for a championship — experience.
And if the Celtics somehow manage to get past Miami, the Chicago Bulls are just as big a challenge.
In fact, the Bulls might pose an even greater threat because of their head coach, former Celtics lead assistant and defensive czar Tom Thibodeau. No head coach knows the good, the bad and who can be exploited, on this Celtics team better than Thibodeau.
When you throw in reigning league MVP Derrick Rose, a talented frontline led by Joakim Noah and a team that's even deeper than they were a year ago with the recent addition via amnesty of Richard Hamilton, the Celtics will have their hands full trying to bum-rush their way past Chicago.
But as Pierce said, no one expects winning a championship to be an easy chore.
It wasn't in 2008 for the Celtics.
That team was put together with a relatively short window at the time of winning a championship.
And that window is definitely narrowing by the day, with Father Time gradually catching up to the Big Three, who, to their credit, have done a good job of keeping him at bay.
This race is nearing its end.
But even with a point guard as talented as Rondo and a deeper bench, it's hard to imagine the Celtics sprinting ahead of the pack this season to bring home Banner 18.