They were easy to dismiss: age and injuries, a lack of big bodies and rebounds, a 15-17 record at the All-Star break. The Boston Celtics appeared finished, the years finally bringing down the proud veterans who won the 2008 championship.
But just as the obituaries were being written, the Celtics erupted: at 21-8 they are the NBA's best team over the past two months and have surged from the edge of the play-offs picture to the likely No 4 seeds.
"We've been put on the back burner all year long," said Paul Pierce, the veteran forward, after Boston defeated the Miami Heat for the second time in as many weeks. "This is our opportunity to show the world we still have a lot left in the tank.
"It's a fun time of year, the play-offs are right around the corner and we thrive in these situations."
All of their stars are playing well, even if in unfamiliar roles. Kevin Garnett, a seven-footer who has always loathed being considered a centre, has moved into the middle with great success. The rookie Avery Bradley was so good while Ray Allen was out with an injury that Doc Rivers, the coach, has convinced the recovered Allen that he is more useful off the bench.
And it is working so well that other teams are becoming nervous.
The Celtics are again playing smothering defence. They remember what it takes to win a championship. They are led by the respected Rivers. And they know the clock is ticking on their three-man core of Pierce, 34; Garnett, 35; and Allen, 36. They seem ready for one last title push.
"I keep saying our locker room is as tight as maybe it's ever been," Rivers said. "They cheer for each other. They pull for each other."
They have been so good for so many weeks that they look like a team to avoid in the play-offs. And if they remain vulnerable to teams with size, there are not many of those in the Eastern Conference.
Injuries to Allen and Pierce have provided unforeseen benefits. Forced to use the forward Greg Steimsma and Bradley, both young players responded, and their bench became more formidable.
Meanwhile, Rajon Rondo, the high-energy point guard, has gone on a triple-double spree, Pierce is healthy and the Celtics once again believe in themselves. They do not seem to realise they should be thinking about life after basketball and not the 2012 championship.
While the Heat and Chicago Bulls have sagged, the Celtics have surged. The old guys are looking dangerous.
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