Boston 95, Orlando 92; Boston leads series, 2-0
There's no point in trying to wrap your head around a series that sees the team with the best regular-season point differential lose twice at home to a team that struggled mightily down the stretch of the same regular season. Because as little sense as it would appear to make on paper, you know this makes sense.
Boston took Orlando to seven games last year, without KG. Either game in the regular- season series (that Orlando took, 3-1) could have gone Boston's way, and the Magic were built to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers, not the Celtics. After 96 minutes of play, the Celtics are only up seven points on the Magic, but they've also won twice. Boston is getting better and more confident by the day, and Orlando isn't pitching perfect games anymore.
That last part is worth paying attention to. For most of last season and a good chunk of this one, Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy had his team executing about as well as anyone could hope for when it counted the most. And, as many times, when it counted the least. Against crummy playoff opponents, and lottery outfits.
And while the Magic are still playing well, coming through with the right play most of the time, they're just not matching Boston's level of execution. It's not a matter of aggressiveness and rage, it's a matter of patience and confidence. Boston exudes that, in spades, on both ends. Orlando does quite a bit, as well. Just not as much as Boston. Just not as much as it needs to win these close games.
So what you get are a few quick shots, or some turnovers when it's become obvious that someone like Rajon Rondo(notes) (he's seen a few Spurs games, I'm sure. He knows where you got that from) has sussed out your play. And you get 22 seconds of defense against good ball movement when 24 seconds are needed. It might only happen on 15 percent of your plays, on both ends, but a game and a series like this demands near perfection. To beat these C's, that rate has to be dropped to only 10 percent. Or fewer.
You've seen the result. A three-point game on Tuesday. A four-point game on Sunday. Sure, Sunday's Game 1 was a blowout for the first 34 minutes or so, but a few calmer heads on just a few more plays in both games, and Orlando is up 2-0 and we're not shocked.
We should be shocked by the Celtics — or any team — taking the first two games of the series on the road, but we're not. Because we've seen the games, and we know the teams. Sometimes a pretty even 96 minutes can result in a 2-0 status. Especially when you factor in how little either side seems to consider a home-court advantage while it plays.
What allowed, initially, for Boston to stay in this game was the play of Paul Pierce(notes). In the first half he hit a series of jumpers that you knew were spiraling in just a split-second after it left his hand, mainly because his form was so good, and that elbow was directly under the ball. It really does come down to that on most of his shooting nights, as Pierce (28 points on 16 shots, five boards, five assists, five turnovers, five fouls) had another great game.
Rajon Rondo took over late. He missed a few plays defensively and missed a couple of shots, but otherwise he was a pretty dominant and versatile force, thinking on his feet and finishing with 25 points and eight assists. Just two turnovers, too, with two steals. Ray Allen(notes) missed five of six shots, but he tilted the entire floor to his spot on the hardwood whenever he came off a screen (especially with J.J. Redick(notes) chasing him), and that sort of attention opens up lanes and alleyways for his teammates initially or even eventually after a couple of passes. Kevin Garnett(notes) shot 5-16 but nailed a clutch baseline jumper late in the fourth.
Jameer Nelson(notes) was the difference for Orlando. He just couldn't find a rhythm, a sense of timing. He couldn't improvise and figure out when, exactly, it was time to dominate the ball and time to give it up. As a result, he tried to make all sides happy, took too much from either side and killed his team's offense in the process: 4-12 shooting, four assists, three turnovers, no help.
I liked Dwight Howard's(notes) line, but he's still rushing shots and reverting offensively, making it so observers can point out how little he's changed through the years. That's complete and utter bollocks, as Howard's footwork and post-work have gotten way, way better through the years, including as compared to last season.
But he's not squaring his shoulders, or setting his feet correctly, and he is hurrying shots. And though he dropped 30, a bunch of those free-throw makes were lucky to go in, and a few of those field goals took ridiculous bounces before dropping in. It was like Jamal Crawford(notes) scoring 30 by banking in threes and top-of-the-key jumpers. The ball wasn't supposed to go where it did, but somehow it went in.
He was better, make no mistake, but he was also caught out of position a few times defensively, and needed to help more on the boards. This is where we get into unfair territory with Dwight, because he has to do so much for this team to win; but based on the last two years of his career, we're well within our rights to expect absolute brilliance from this guy. For him to be the only rebounder on the floor. For his scent to rub off on five different opponents trying to score, in one possession.
We've seen him do it, all the time, and we've come to expect excellence as a rule. Not laughing between timeouts and having to be woken up and told by Rashard Lewis(notes) — Rashard Lewis! — where to be in a rotation. He can't just be there most of the time. This team was built around him being there nearly all the time.
This is the near-perfect play that Orlando has come to rely on over the last two years. Stan Van Gundy's game plan and wishes executed to as close to its peak as can be reasonably expected. It's not about hoping Matt Barnes(notes) (2-9 shooting) does better on all those chippies, it's the way you have to call a timeout when your coach asks you to. It's not about Rashard Lewis forcing up a 3-pointer that he's still likely to make 40 percent of the time, it's about finding a counter with an extra pass when Glen Davis(notes) (who was fantastic defensively, showing on screen and rolls) commits too far from the hoop.
These are things Boston does, by the way. Extra passes, stifling defense, lots of talking. Lots of winning, too.
I honestly believe Orlando has it well within itself to grab home-court advantage back. That means taking two in Boston, and you shouldn't be shocked if that rolls out as an outcome. But you also shouldn't be surprised if Boston takes the next two by a combined seven points, as well. Especially if Orlando continues to bring a B+ game when a near-perfect score is needed just to pass.
Because Boston? They're doing everything right, and that's not going away. What a turnaround.