BOSTON - It was only the first act of a show that seems headed for a long run, but the opening game of the NBA's Eastern Conference semifinals between these ancient basketball rivals laid out the plot very plainly.
This is Youth vs. Age, Energy vs. Experience, and, ultimately, the Future vs. the Past.
Give the first battle to the Boston Celtics, who had to come back twice from a deep hole to survive in their home arena, 92-91. Boston trailed by as many as 13 points in the first half, looking slow and uninspired. The Celts rallied in the second half, took the lead, lost it again, trailed by 10 early in the fourth quarter, and then willed themselves to the late victory.
The loss was a particularly tough one for the 76ers to take, if only because a victory seemed there for the taking for so long. They could do everything they wanted, but they couldn't contain Kevin Garnett, who will turn 36 on Saturday, and they couldn't keep a slumbering Boston offense from awakening.
"I don't think that it's anything we did poorly with Garnett. Sometimes, you get trumped," Sixers coach Doug Collins said. "We had a great chance to get the game, but had some really bad possessions that hurt us. That's the sign of a team trying to grow."
This was a riveting start, and it promises to be a riveting series, if only to have the questions that it poses answered for the time being. Will Youth triumph? Will Experience find a way? Will the Future arrive and the Past be dismissed?
The 76ers didn't do anything against the Boston Celtics on Saturday night that was new or surprising. Their strength is that they keep doing it, with the hope that the opposition will grow tired of fighting through it.
Maybe it was the Sixers, maybe it was the lingering effects of a physical series with the Atlanta Hawks, and maybe it was just the cumulative toll of a compressed season, but something had the Celtics tired in Game 1.
"They came out and attacked us. They played harder than us, to be honest," Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "I told them that we can't let Philly be more athletic and play harder. We had to try to match their intensity."
As the Sixers went out to a 28-18 lead after the first quarter, they had a few fastbreak points, but only a few. Instead, the Sixers shot well from the floor - exceptionally well for them - and the Celtics were settling for jumpers and missing them badly. Without getting inside position, the Celtics also were not getting any offensive rebounds and their offense was usually one-and-done.
Almost any team will look good compared to that, but the Sixers looked good in their own right, moving the ball easily to the open man and getting rewarded. Just to prove how well things were going, Andre Iguodala hit a pair of three-pointers and led the Sixers with 10 points.
The game couldn't go quite like that forever, and Rivers kept shuffling and reshuffling his lineup, looking for a combination of inside game and perimeter that would produce more offense. He found a small lineup that was effective and stuck with it long enough to cool off the Sixers and heat up his own offense. The Celts made enough shots at the beginning of the second half to take the lead and watch it grow to four points, 53-49.
They couldn't maintain that pace, however, and it looked like a game between one team too young to know how to put away the opposition and the other too old to make that matter. So, in a preview of the games to come, this one went to the final minutes before Boston edged ahead to stay. If this game is any indication, it might take all seven to decide whether this will be a victory for Youth or Age.
"It was a tough loss, but we know we can play with these guys," Iguodala said.
The Celtics are banged up at key positions, and their three veteran stars, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, are closer to the end of the road than the beginning. Unspoken is the thought that this could be the last hurrah for that group. It has to be on their minds, however.
"It should be," Rivers said. "They understand who we are and where we are at this point of our run. It's not anything you ever talk about, but we're all pretty smart people. We understand."
They understand that Youth eventually will be served, and that Age eventually will have to step aside. The rest of this series is dedicated to learning whether eventually already has arrived.