One thing is for sure about this Celtics team. They like challenges. After giving away home court in game 1 of the Bulls series, they decided to stick to the routine by laying an egg for a half against the Magic before waking up and falling short in a valiant comeback attempt. It’s clear though that on a night where we saw some of the best and worst the C’s and Magic have to offer, fans of both teams are likely in store for another rollercoaster ride of a series.
As a Celtics fan, I’m torn on how to react to their five point defeat. On the one hand, there was the discouraging lack of urgency the starters played with through the first 28 minutes of this game. They came out looking stagnant and flat, traits that had become a trademark of this team during first halves of games for the last two months of the regular season. On the other hand, the team woke up in the 2nd half and outplayed its opponent by playing inspired basketball, just like it had every time someone counted them out of a game in those same two months.
Dig a hole, step up the intensity, and make a run in the 2nd half which was usually enough for them to give them a chance by the end. That’s the way this Celtic team lived and died without KG for much of this year. Well tonight the equation changed a little bit. The hole was deeper than normal, (28 point deficit) and though the intensity was there for the final 20 minutes, there was not enough steady play or sharp shooting by the C’s to sustain the comeback. In fact after the Celtics’ initial third quarter run cut the Magic lead to ten with 10 minutes remaining, the game became almost painful to watch for fans of both squads.
Neither team wanted to take control during this pivotal stretch, as the contest became reminiscent of a proverbial game of hot potato as the teams traded foolish turnovers and missed shots. I think I even overheard some banter on the floor during this sequence as the Magic players yelled to the C’s, “You take this game! We can’t handle this kind of pressure!” as the Celtics responded, “No, you guys had it first! We don’t want it!” It made for frantic and ugly final 10 minutes of basketball with the Celtics inability to seize upon countless opportunities provided Orlando with enough leeway to hold on to the win.
One look at the box score makes you wonder how the Celtics ever got back into this game in the first place. Rondo was 2 of 11 with 7 turnovers, Ray was 2 of 11 with just 9 points, Paul was 7 of 18. How did the C’s make this close?
The answer is two fold. Free throws and defense along with a healthy dose of the C’s now not so secret weapon: Brian Scalabrine.
First the free throws. The Celtics shot none in the first half, an impressive but deserving number considering how little they went to the hoop. Many forget the Magic were the top defensive team in the league during the regular season in terms of overall efficiency and it showed in the 1st half. They got back in transition, contained the C’s on pick and rolls and locked down on Boston’s half court sets.
The Magic have a reputation to some as a soft jump shooting team, but it was the Celtics that became that kind team in the 1st half, settling for jumpers on 25 of their 43 first half shots. These were not good jumpers either, they were “out of rhythm, shot clock running down, why the hell not?” jumpers. To make matters worse, the C’s shooters were ice cold as they only made eight of those attempts on their way to being run out of the building by Orlando come halftime.
On the flip side, the Magic were anything but a jump shooting team in the first 24 minutes, going an efficient 7/12 on their jumpers on their way to shooting 52% as a team early on. The Magic were also aggressive but only got to the line 8 times as the officials let the physical play rule early on both ends of the floor.
Despite the lack of fouls, the Magic still ran up a 28 point lead on the defending champs by spreading the floor with precision passing, terrific penetration and kicks to the perimeter that led to balanced scoring with all eight players in blue showing up in the score sheet by the half. Four players (Howard, Turkoglu, Lewis, and the ever impressive Michael Pietrus) each had at least nine points through 24 minutes making Orlando look like a team with too many weapons for Boston to contain.
The domination continued in the early moments of the 2nd half as the Magic came out hungry while the C’s played uninspired and sloppy basketball. Then a funny thing happened that turned the tide of this game. Brian Scalabrine made his way to the scoring table. Read about the madness that ensued after the jump.
I have written extensively about the potential impact Scalabrine could have for the Celtics in these playoffs. Game 1 against the Magic we got to see what Scal at his peak can bring to a team. Once number 44 checked in for Glen Davis with 8:36 remaining in the 3rd quarter, he brought a sense of energy and urgency the team desperately needed.
Within 30 seconds of play the power forward hit an open three. On the next possession he aggressively took the ball to the hoop and missed an eight footer. The missed shot doesn’t deserve the accolades but the fact he was making strong move to the hoop was what caught my attention. Scal knew the team needed to be more aggressive to make a comeback against the Magic and if none of his teammates would be willing to take the ball to the hoop with a purpose, then he would have to himself.
Luckily for C’s fans, Scal’s teammates took notice of this energy as it became contagious for the green. Finally the team looked interested and motivated to get back into the game. They began to attack the Magic’s defense relentlessly as Rondo and company drove to the hoop at will on their way to 26(!) second half free throws including 12 for Rondo.
Boston’s new found assertiveness carried over to the defensive end as well the Celtics attacked the Magic like a wild animal with its prey within its sights.
Scalabrine (+22 on the night by the way) once again set the tone of the defensive end as he did a great job in shutting down Rashard Lewis (0 4th quarter points). Perk joined the block party, denying two of Superman’s layups in the 4th, Rondo became a pest against Alston, and suddenly Orlando could not put the ball in the hoop shooting 25 percent (5/20) in the final frame.
Even though the C’s D limited the Magic’s open looks in the 2nd half, they still had a number of easy attempts they should have knocked down. Despite holding off for the win, the Orlando skeptics will be out in full force after this game and rightfully so. The team completely folded under the playoff pressure with its offensive studs (Howard, Lewis, Turkoglu) going a combined 1 for 11 in the final quarter. They lacked a killer instinct needed to put the C’s away and gave Boston every imaginable opportunity to steal this one down the stretch.
So I give some kudos to the Magic for the win, but Celtics fans have to feel good knowing that the team shot 38 percent for the game, went 15 of 37 from the field in the 2nd half and still managed to close a 28 point gap to 4 in the final minutes of this one. Not many teams are capable of shooting that badly and making things interesting. The Celtics proved tonight as they have all season you can never count them out.
–7 turnovers for Rajon Rondo including some incredibly dangerous dogwalking to go along with 2/12 shooting and perhaps most disturbingly 0/6 on jumpers. I don’t know what has come over the guy but he looks to have lost all confidence shooting the ball ever since his game 6 shuffle with Hinrich going a paltry 8/37 from the field since that game.
Any strides he made as a shooter during those five Chicago games appeared to have been lost and we are back to the Rondo of old except he played this contest with the immaturity and carelessness of a rookie. Yet it was his defense and aggressiveness on offense in the 4th quarter that also helped to catapult this team’s comeback. I feel like I’m bipolar when I witness Rondo since I have never watched a player and been so enthralled and frustrated at the same time. His shooting may be gone but the point guard must make smarter decisions if the Celtics are to have any shot to win this series.
–Perk and Big Baby did a decent job neutralizing Howard on the offensive end limiting him to just 16 points with Davis being the only one to get into foul trouble. Howard’s 22 boards don’t bother me considering the C’s outrebounded the Magic 47-40.
–Perk needs to realize he is not facing Joakim Noah anymore when he attempts to post up against Howard as those 1st quarter attempts were tough to watch. While Perk was an appealing option during the Bulls series, he must now become option number 5 on offense with Superman manning the middle.
–Ray Allen sticks with routine in having an absolutely hideous game 1 (2/12 shooting, 9 points) like he did in game 1 of the Bulls series, including a heartbreaking 3 ball attempt that rimmed out with 30 seconds remaining which would have cut the lead to 1.
We could have used him tonight but he deserves a mulligan after carrying us for much of that Bulls series. Have to give props for a nice defensive job by J.J. Redick and Pietrus on Allen which made me and legions of Celtics fans eat crow by forecasting they would have no chance against Ray. Luckily, it’s a 7 game series.
–Ho hum night for Paul (23 points 7/18 shooting) Got into a bit of a rhythm in the 2nd half but not enough to get this team over the hump. Tough to do when you are done 28 with a no show supporting cast.
–Tremendous job by the bench tonight. Besides Scal, Eddie came in and knocked down a couple threes in both the 2nd and 4th quarter and finished with a +4 on the evening. He will surely be an asset as this series moves forward.
Marbury had likely his most impressive outing in a Celtic uniform, hitting an impressive variety of floaters and open jumpers on his way to 8 points and 3 assists in 9 minutes. Doc was so impressed he decided to save Starbury for the remaining games of the series by resting Marbury for the entire 2nd half. All kidding aside, great to see positive signs and some confidence from number 8. And for the record, I totally understand Doc keeping Rondo in for the entire 2nd half as his aggressive defense was crucial in the team’s comeback.
– I thought Michael Pietrus was suppose to be an offensive liability. Hopefully his 17 points were just an aberration but a fine performance for the French man who hit big shot after big shot in this one.