BOSTON – As the Boston Celtics staggered into the locker room, they were met with the booming and blistering words of Doc Rivers. His was a hellacious halftime diatribe distilled into this message: To hell with the Chicago Bulls hangover, the fallacy of fatigue.
“We will not be using fatigue as an excuse,” the Celtics coach sniffed later. “Not this team.”
They looked like they were playing basketball underwater as the Orlando Magic spread the floor and played pop-a-shot. Boston made it so easy for the Magic. The Celtics stood around, lobbed long, flat jumpers to the rim and did the unthinkable considering the array of slashing, scoring talent on the champions: They had gone without a free throw, a statistical monument to Celtics sluggishness in a 95-90 Game 1 loss on Monday.
“That means your team is completely unaggressive,” Rivers said.
That means your team was stranded somewhere between the afterglow of the Bulls epic and a prelude to losing home court in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Every time the Celtics peered to the videoboard above center court, there flickered one more highlight tribute to the seven games and seven overtimes with Chicago.
These are the playoffs, and it wouldn’t matter that the Celtics, down 28 points in the third quarter, finally began to pressure and unravel the Magic. “We could not handle Rajon Rondo’s pressure,” Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy marveled.
The Celtics were within four points several times in the final minutes, but carelessness and the defensive might of Dwight Howard never allowed Boston to get the ball with a chance to tie.
Orlando understood that Game 1 was the chance to steal one from the Celtics, and delivered the deed. There are no moral victories for a failed comeback in the NBA playoffs, just a 1-0 series lead for the Magic, just an immense burden on Boston on Wednesday night.
For everything that Boston had hoped it exposed on Orlando in those frantic, final minutes, there was still the illumination that the Magic can be a matchup nightmare for the Celtics. When the Magic were under siege, they never turned to Howard on offense the way that they should’ve – the way that they will – and still beat the Celtics. The All-Star center took only five second-half shots, but his 22 rebounds and three blocks ultimately doomed the Celtics.
Howard never bristled as the Magic jacked 27 3-pointers, insisting later, “My main concern is defense and making sure we contain those guys, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are tough. My biggest thing is defensive and rebounding. There are going to be nights [when] I’m not getting shots, but my team can count on me for defense.”
When it mattered, Howard was the mountain meeting the Celtics at the rim. Orlando funnels those dribble-drives into him and he just changes everything. To complement him on offense, Orlando spreads the floor beautifully with so many terrific shooters – Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu and J.J. Redick.
For all the hysteria people had over Redick defending Ray Allen, he outscored him 12-9 in Game 1. Redick was efficient shooting, and fought through screens over and over to stay with Allen. Yes, Allen won’t miss 10 of 12 shots often, but Redick is no liability for the Magic. He’s a fierce shot-maker, and maybe the Magic won’t desperately miss injured rookie guard Courtney Lee.
It is just a matter of time until the Magic go inside to Howard over and over, and get the Celtics' thin frontline into major foul trouble. The Magic are now 3-0 against the Celtics without Kevin Garnett this season, and there’s no sense that Garnett could return before this series’ end. The Celtics plan is to front Howard, and refuse to allow his brute strength to beat them.
“Make him use his skill, his athleticism,” the Celtics' Big Baby Davis said.
As the Celtics discovered late on Monday night, they need to harass those Magic ball-handlers, never let them get into an offense. “When we put pressure on them it was a whole different ballgame,” Rivers said. Once the Magic get into their half-court sets, it’s trouble for the Celtics. They spread the floor, move the ball and find space for shooters. Most of all, there’s Howard on the low block, the superstar center that the Bulls never had to overtake Boston.
This time, it’s different. Yes, the Celtics dropped a game in the Garden to start a playoff series again, but the consequences threaten to be different this time. The Magic are an elite Eastern Conference team, and they didn’t care much about Boston’s Bulls hangover. They came into the Garden, embarrassed the champions for most of Monday night and stole home court right off the parquet.
The video board flickered above with unforgettable moments out of that epic Chicago series, but something else was happening down below: The Orlando Magic had come to take its next step as a franchise, push past the champion Celtics and get to a conference finals. Doc Rivers screamed at his Celtics to wake up, to start playing the Magic before it was too late, and as it turned out, it was too late in Game 1.