It hasn’t been easy for this Celtic team all year long. Last night was no exception as they dropped an extremely winnable game against this Orlando team and made sure there would another game 7 back in the Garden. This team did this last year, getting pushed to the brink during the first two series and have followed the script again this year in the new role of the shorthanded underdog instead of the unproven contender.
The hard part of this game for Celtics fans to swallow was the fact that the win was right there for them to take until the final couple minutes of this one. During this first half the Green came out with some jump in their step. They were beating the Magic to loose balls, played tough defense on the perimeter shooters, and were showing a willingness to get out and run.
Thanks to this kind of play, the Celtics appeared to be on the verge of a knockout blow against the hometown team, stretching out leads on two occasions in the 2nd quarter to 8 and 9 points respectively. If there was ever a time a large early lead could have taken the heart out of a opponent, last night looked be the perfect opportunity with an Orlando squad that appeared to be frustrated with themselves and their coach.
Instead of going for the kill though, the Celts let their guard down upon building these leads. A travel here and a bad pass there along with some timely shooting from Michael Pietrus and company let the Magic close both gaps within a couple minutes, leading to just a one point deficit for the bad guys going into half despite a subpar shooting half for the majority of the Magic team.
Many critics will blame another terrible shooting night from Ray Allen (2/11, 5 points) as the deciding factor for the loss, but the main culprit of the C’s defeat was turnovers. Boston’s turnover problem had been its Achilles heel all season long, so far during the playoffs though the team rather surprisingly had done a better job of taking care of the ball averaging just 13 turnovers a contest, a sharp drop from their league worst 15.6 turnovers a game in the regular season.
Despite this improvement, the team’s turnover demons had always been lurking in the shadows and finally made their presence felt tonight. The Celts piled up 19 largely unforced turnovers that helped keep this Orlando team within striking distance all night long. As they had all season, the miscues appeared in all shapes and sizes from 24 second violations, to travels and moving picks along with a handful of ill advised passes. The list could go on and on. You name a way to turn over the ball and the C’s likely performed the deed tonight.
All members of the starting lineup chipped in with the miscues with Rondo and Perkins leading the way with 5 each and Ray following closely behind with 4. Despite an impressive all around night for Rondo (19 points, 16 rebounds, 6 assists) he made some particularly boneheaded decisions with the ball even before he threw away the C’s last chance at this game away with the horrendous inbounds pass with 90 seconds left.
Rondo’s decision making seemed off all night, especially on Celtics fast breaks. The Celtics came up empty a disturbing number of times on 3 on 1 and 3 on 2 breakouts thanks to ill advised shots and passes from the point guard leading the way. On a night, where the C’s weren’t playing well in the half court, these were missed scoring opportunities that came back to haunt the C’s who only managed to score 29 points in the 2nd half.
So how exactly did Boston hold on to the lead much of the game despite their scoring woes? The C’s got lucky with Orlando’s shooters having an abysmal night from the outside and the free throw line, going 23 percent from deep and an embarrassing 54 percent from the line. It took a superhuman effort from Dwight Howard rebounding the missed jumpers down low and finished them off with several strong putbacks to keep his team in the game for the first three quarters. Boston did their best to throw bodies at Superman but there was no denying the 6’10’’ athletic freak as he came through with 10 offensive rebounds and 22 rebounds overall. Perk shut down Howard’s low post game quite well but could not contain Dwight on the glass.
Despite Howard’s impressive play to be honest, the game as a whole was quite painful to watch for most of the second half as both team’s offenses were stuck in neutral. The game had the feeling of the closing rounds a bad heavyweight boxing match. You had two fighters that were gassed and kept trading blows but failed to connect substantially on any of them. When either side showed any sign of momentum, the other contender would tie them up, slowing down any progress that had been built. Artistic basketball it was not.
Paul Pierce appeared to be ready to break this trend midway through the 4th quarter. He caught fire, nailing three mid range jumpers that turned a 5 point deficit into a 1 point Celtic lead heading into an Orlando timeout. Then Stan Van Gundy made the critical decision to once again aggressively double Paul the rest of the way and make sure that he wouldn’t be the one to end Orlando’s season.
The decision was likely made easier for Van Gundy by the fact that besides Pierce, the best outside shooter for Boston’s starting five to that point had been Rajon Rondo, which is never a good sign for the team’s chances. In any case, the doubles came, Paul rightly passed out of them and most nights the rest of the Celtic team would punish this strategy. Tonight that was not the case.
That’s all for tonight, as I will let this one settle a little more before tackling the rest of the action tomorrow. Check back with Celticshub later Friday for thoughts on another productive bench performance by the C’s, Ray Allen’s struggles and what to expect for game 7.