In the aftermath of Boston's brutal Game 5 loss in the Eastern Conference finals, the various Celtics presented an interesting tableau of emotions.
Ray Allen was calm, cool and utterly unaffected. Paul Pierce, the dutiful captain, did his media duties right away, hitting all the right notes of support for Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis.
Perkins was nowhere to be found after his ejection. Good move keeping the most honest man in the room away from the press. Davis, meanwhile, was all raw emotion as he burst through a crowd of reporters vowing that he would play in Game 6.
Rasheed Wallace took one look at the press mob and waved them away. “I ain’t getting fined,” he said by way of explanation, which probably summed up the way he felt about the game anyway.
Then there was Kevin Garnett. Of all the Celtics, he is sometimes the most difficult to read. He can be joyful, somber, introspective, angry and confrontational in these postgame settings and sometimes a warped combination of all five.
He was asked if a game like this showed how fleeting things can be in the NBA. There was a long pause, as if he was searching for exactly what it was he wanted to say.
“We've just got to come play and we’ve got to be more defensive-minded than usual,” Garnett said. “We’ve got to be the ones that hit first, and I’m not saying that in going out and doing dumb stuff. We’ve got to be firm and get back to the defensive-minded team that we are. We’re upset. We don’t take losing lightly. We never have. We have to look ourselves in the mirror as a team, get together and figure this thing out.”
He hadn’t answered the question exactly, but in a way he had. Things have slipped away from the Celtics, and heading into a pivotal Game 6 Friday night in Boston, they have to get everything back or face the taunts and insults for all eternity.
The last time the Celtics played a Game 6 they had the eyes of the sports world watching to see if these tough old bastards could really knock off the King and his court. Now they are trying to prevent becoming the first team in NBA history to blow a 3-0 lead.
Funny thing, though: The Magic are no closer to the NBA finals than the Phoenix Suns. Momentum may be on their side, but the advantage is still with the Celtics, at least for one more night.
Here’s what to watch for as the Celtics look to close this series out.
CAN KENDRICK PERKINS KEEP HIS COOL?
The only thing we know for sure going into this game is that at some point Matt Barnes will try to get Kendrick Perkins riled up. Barnes has already said as much and if Perkins has learned anything from this episode he will put up his arms, smile, and get the heck away from him.
Perkins had best be on his good behavior tonight, and for the rest of the playoffs, because he is still sitting one technical foul away from the magical number of seven and everyone in the league knows it.
“I’m just going to try to get Perk to be Perk and just play,” Doc Rivers said. “Not be concerned with techs, not be concerned with fouls, and just go out and play, but that’s very difficult to do.”
There’s no question that not having Perkins on the floor in the second half affected the Celtics. Perhaps Glen Davis wouldn’t have been guarding Dwight Howard when he caught an elbow, and a concussion. Perhaps Rasheed Wallace, who dropped in a rather astounding 21 points, would have been able to play more than 18 minutes before fouling out.
“Unfortunately we can’t get those calls back,” Rivers said. “It clearly hurt us not having Perk on the floor in Game 5.”
With questions surrounding the health of Davis and Wallace (back spasms) who are both considered game-time decisions, the Celtics need Perkins to not only play, but play well, stay out of foul trouble and not allow his emotions to get the better of him.
“Obviously Perk created the problem as far as his emotional overloads where he allowed himself to get to this,” Rivers said. “I also do believe he’s a physical player. It’s a fine line. You need him to be emotional as a player.”
Perkins was able to keep his emotions in check last season against the Magic, when he was basically the only frontcourt player let standing and he had to guard Howard with one arm. He needs a repeat of that performance tonight.
HEY DWIGHT, WATCH THOSE ELBOWS
As this series has gone along, Dwight Howard has become a one-man wrecking crew in the paint for the Magic. His defense has been much better than his offense, and his offense has been spectacular at times.
But it has also been his elbows that have raised the ire of the Celtics. He caught Garnett with one in Game 4, which led to a technical foul on Garnett for retaliation. Afterward, the NBA upgraded Howard’s foul to a Flagrant 1, which did the Celtics little good after the fact.
He also knocked out Davis, and one of his teeth, in Game 5. Rivers has been working the message that it’s Howard, and not his Celtics, that have raised the stakes in the physical post.
“It’s amazing how this game has gone so far,” Rivers said. “Kendrick has been the one in foul trouble and he’s not the most physical player on the floor. Dwight Howard is clearly the most physical player on the floor.”
This works both ways, of course. The Celtics have battered Howard at times, as they did in Game 1 and Game 3. But the Celtics may have made a tactical error in announcing that they planned to beat him up in the post and use their fouls.
The officials have taken note. Friday night’s refs are Monty McCutchen, Mike Callahan and Ken Mauer. How they work the game will be very important to tonight’s outcome. If they’re calling touch fouls early, it won’t be to the Celtics' benefit.
While Perkins was granted his reprieve, Davis is a game-time decision after reportedly being medically cleared Friday afternoon, and there’s just no way to know how his concussion will affect him. Wallace clearly is struggling with back spasms. Rivers said that he couldn’t sit down while the team watched film Thursday. All of that leaves the C's mighty thin up front and makes staying out of foul trouble a must.
“It’s tough to get back to it [being physical] when your guys are already in foul trouble because of touch fouls,” Rivers said. “We want to be physical, too, because they sure are. We have to be smarter with the way we use our fouls and that way we have fouls to use.”
Howard is really the only up-front muscle the Magic have, and he’s not afraid to use it. Never mind that smile and those goofball antics, Howard is a beast in the paint and the Celtics have to do a better job of dealing with it, and watching where he swings those elbows.
IS RAJON RONDO HURT?
The whispers have been building into outright concern ever since Rajon Rondo briefly went back to the locker room before halftime of Game 4. The team said he had a muscle spasm, and Rondo downplayed it after the game.
“Rondo will be fine,” Rivers said. “He did have some spasms in game, but they’re mostly gone.”
Rondo scored only eight points in Game 4, and while he did drop 19 in Game 5, he seemed to be a step slower. Some of that was the effect of getting killed on the boards as the Magic grabbed 10 offensive rebounds, but there’s no doubt that Rondo has been getting hit and hit hard when he goes into the paint.
Take the Howard highlight-film block where he chased Rondo down the court. It was a great block, but in the aftermath he came crunching down on Rondo’s head.
“It’s something we have sent to the league,” Rivers said. “The Howard run-down was a terrific block, but after the block his follow through was on top of his back and on his head. Rajon has taken a bunch of head shots.”
While Rondo took his share of blows in the Cavaliers series, in some ways this has been a far more physical test. Howard is obviously a concern since he has the quickness and reach to recover on Rondo’s drives, but he is also taking shots on the defensive end where the Magic have run repeated staggered pick and rolls at him.
“For Rajon he just has to stay physical and keep playing the way he plays,” Rivers said. “I don’t think Rajon’s going to stop doing what he does. He’s an aggressive player, he’s got to stay aggressive, so I’m not that concerned with Rajon.”
True enough, but for the Celtics he is the key to everything, and if he’s banged up worse than they’re letting on, it will make it that much tougher.
DEFENDING THE 3’S AND J.J. REDICK
It had to happen eventually. At some point Orlando was going to start making 3’s. The Celtics can’t beat the Magic when they make 13-of-25 from behind the arc as they did in Game 5, but even if the number is between eight and 10, it’s a problem.
“Clearly the 3-point shot we have to take away,” Rivers said. “What we showed them today, some of the ones they got out of their offense, their pick and roll stuff, they’re going to get those. But the ones they got off of offensive rebounds and loose balls, effort plays, those are the ones we have to take away.”
The Magic grabbed 10 offensive rebounds in Game 5 and had 11 in Game 4. They had only three in Game 3, which ended in a Celtics blowout.
The majority of offensive rebounds have come off some kind of action on the offensive end, be it from the pick and roll or in transition. That’s why it’s imperative that the Celtics play the tempo and pace that they prefer.
Yes, they want to run when they have the advantage, but they can’t run if they don’t get defensive rebounds, and they can’t control the pace if they’re missing shots. It’s all connected.
But in the halfcourt they have to do a better job of staying with Redick who has been one of the Magic’s top three players.
“We didn’t know he was going to be Pistol Pete [Maravich], but we did expect him to be a great player,” Rivers said. “J.J. Redick has hurt us all year in the regular season. J.J. Redick has been very, very important. I think J.J. Redick has been their most consistent player in this series.”
Stan Van Gundy has already decided that he’ll play Redick over Vince Carter, and while Carter’s invisible offense has been the cause of so much derision, his defense has been even worse. With Carter off the floor, Van Gundy has used Redick to guard Ray Allen, and he has been very effective in that role.
The number of 3’s the Celtics have in mind is five, which is a high standard against this Magic team, but if they can keep it below eight that would be a vast improvement in Game 6.
You can take all your adjustments and strategic moves, and while you have to account for them, sometimes it just comes down to playing harder, faster and smarter.
“We’re really good, and so are they,” Rivers said. “Neither team is going to win a game and not play as hard as the other team. That’s just not going to happen.”
It’s hard to quantify this aspect of the game, because superior execution can make any team look like it's not giving its all. That isn’t the case in this series. Outside of Game 3, both teams have competed at a high level.
But there does appear to be an extra gear somewhere, and the team that has found it has won all five games.
“I thought Orlando played harder [in Game 5],” Rivers said. “I thought they were the aggressor and I thought they attacked us the entire game. That is something that we can do. That’s not a game plan. When we do win, we do that, and we didn’t do that as well as Orlando, especially on the glass.”
This is the Celtics' moment of truth in the postseason. If they lose this game they will have to head back to Orlando with the world expecting them to get knocked out in historic fashion. They still have the upper hand, but that goes away after tonight.
While no NBA team has ever lost a 3-0 series lead before, this has nothing to do with history, either ancient or recent, and it certainly has nothing to do with their hockey-playing counterparts.
This has everything to do with tonight, and the moment is at hand.