ORLANDO — There is a formula for winning playoff games on the road. Generally, it takes a strong defensive effort, a collective mental resolve and the good fortune to have some breaks go your way.
The Celtics had all three things line up for them in their 95-92 win in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Magic as they took a commanding 2-0 series lead without having played a game in Boston. It's the first time in franchise history that they have started a playoff series by winning two games in someone else’s building.
The defense was air-tight, holding Orlando to 39 percent shooting. The resolve was tested when Kendrick Perkins and Paul Pierce fouled out. And good fortune smiled on them when Vince Carter missed two free throws in the final minute and J.J. Redick suffered an unfortunate brain lock when he called a timeout after he had advanced the ball.
“Well, if we’re going to carry over one thing from the regular season, it’s the way we’ve played on the road,” Pierce said. “We’ve been in all type of environments as a unit. We expect hostile environments. We expect calls really not to go our way. It really doesn't faze us at all.”
Nothing apparently fazes this team anymore. On a night when Perkins played 15 minutes because of foul trouble, Ray Allen shot 1-for-6 and Dwight Howard put up a 30-point night, the Celtics still found a way to win.
Everyone now wants to know how they did it. How did this team that looked so, well, awful, come together for the postseason? It’s really not supposed to work this way. Everyone knows that. For all the talk about turning it on, there is almost always a paper trail left during the regular season.
The Celtics, really, have just one game: Milwaukee back on April 10, when everything came together down the stretch.
“I know it’s starting to look that way,” Pierce said about turning it on. “Even though we lost some games down the stretch, there were some things that we were doing that we were seeing that we were turning the corner. We saw it coming. We stayed positive. I know it’s starting to look that way, but maybe you can.”
Maybe it’s as simple as this: They are an anomaly. It’s beyond trying to figure them out anymore. The more you look, the more questions you have.
“The things that were said were probably deserved,” Pierce said of criticism during the regular season. “We didn’t play well. We didn’t play consistent. So a lot of the flak that we got, we probably deserved.”
The Celtics that we all remember are back, and they have been for quite some time now. You can try to get to the bottom of it and figure it all out, but the bottom line is this: They know it, and now everyone else is beginning to understand it, too.
PAUL PIERCE CARRIES THE DAY
Let’s be honest about something. LeBron James, for all the criticism he’s been getting, is a nightmare to play against. He’s bigger, faster and younger than Pierce. It’s a reality that Pierce readily acknowledged.
“The big difference is, I don’t have to guard LeBron James,” Pierce said. “I thought I’d have the opportunity to be more aggressive in this series because I don’t have such a huge defensive responsibility. Not taking anything away from Vince because Vince is a great talent. But you’re talking about playing the best player in the league; it’s tough, physically and mentally.”
Make of that what you will, but from the moment the Magic elected to switch Carter on to Pierce, the Celtics' eyes widened. Finally, the captain had his matchup.
“In the first two series he didn’t have his rhythm,” Doc Rivers said. “LeBron, that takes everything out of you. But here, he’s got his rhythm back. To me, Paul Pierce won that game because of the way he started the game. He puts on his shoulders and that gave everyone confidence.”
Pierce scored 12 of his 28 points in the first eight minutes of the game and he would have kept going if not for foul trouble, which continues to plague him. He turned the corner on Carter at will and got everything he wanted: pull-up jumpers, drives to the basket, free throws.
On one particular play he took a crunching shot from Howard, which was ruled a Flagrant 1. After much glaring, mainly from Kevin Garnett, Pierce went to the line and made his two free throws.
“It was a good foul,” Pierce said. “A playoff foul. If you’re going to go to the hole in the playoffs, you got to expect hard fouls. It’s that type of game.”
Pierce made two more huge free throws with 34 seconds left that put the Celtics up by three points and stood in stark contrast to the two that Carter missed on the other end seconds later.
It was a clutch moment on a night when Pierce made more than his share and after the game he was cool, calm and collected. A post on his Twitter page, which appeared to be the work of a hacker that read, “Anybody got a BROOM?”
His comments that came right from his own mouth were anything but overconfident.
"To get to the final, you’ve got to win four,” he said. “This is a team that doesn’t take those things for granted. This is a great Orlando Magic team. They’ve proven it all year long. You can’t take anything for granted.”
Including Paul Pierce.
KG'S FANTASTIC 5-FOR-16 NIGHT
Kevin Garnett wasn’t feeling too good about his offense in this series, but Kendrick Perkins laid some truth on him.
“I told him that the other day,” Perkins said. “He was like, 'Man, I’m struggling a little bit on offense., I just told him, ‘You’re locking up on the defensive end. That’s all that matters.’ We got enough firepower that we need KG for a few jumpers, but we really just need him to lock up the paint.”
For two games in this series Garnett has painted a defensive masterpiece against Rashard Lewis, who Tuesday night got up only six shots and scored just five points in 41 minutes. Lewis now is 4-for-16 in the series. Quite a turnaround for the man who sent the Celtics home last season, but, then, Garnett wasn’t playing last season.
“He was awesome,” Perkins said of KG. “That’s what we need.”
Once Perkins had fouled out, Garnett had to take on the added responsibility of guarding Howard in stretches. Taking a little bit from the Rasheed Wallace handbook, he used his length and his veteran smarts to get into Howard’s head, but this was vintage KG.
On one particular possession, Garnett held Howard off in the post, rotated over to a driving Lewis, altered the shot and came up with the rebound on the opposite side of the glass.
“That’s not a matchup we were hoping for, I can tell you that,” Rivers said. “Overall, he did a great job with his length. Kevin knows he’s not going to win a muscle contest with Dwight Howard, but he does have length.”
And offensively, he was there when the Celtics needed him. He missed eight of his first nine shots, but after knocking down a 20-footer, he roared down the lane for a dunk, while the Celtics were building a 10-point lead in the third quarter.
They’ll take the offense, of course, but what they need is the Kevin Garnett of old, and that’s exactly what they got in Orlando.
RAJON RONDO FIGURES IT OUT (AGAIN)
Rajon Rondo didn’t play all that well by his standards in the first game of this series. He had only eight points and eight assists, but he still played a solid floor game.
That, again, constitutes progress for Rondo, who refuses to let himself get taken out of the game entirely by the Magic defense. But in Game 2, he did more than that.
Yes, Howard is a problem for him in this series, but when the big man was out of the game, Rondo ruthlessly went after Marcin Gortat. And when Howard was in there, Rondo still found a way to make things happen when he got in the paint.
With Rondo, it’s not the defender in front of him, it’s the help, and he’s come up with a few effective counters for the Defensive Player of the Year.
“I think it’s a credit to our bigs,” Rondo said. “Our bigs were in the right spot tonight. When Dwight did come, I was able to dish off to Baby [Glen Davis], Kevin, Perk or Rasheed for layups. I tried to mix it up as much as possible. A couple of floaters, he changed my shot. But other than that, I’m going to make him do his job. He’s going to block some shots, that’s what he does best, but at the end of the day I’m still going to be aggressive.”
One play encapsulated every nuance of Rondo’s game. Guarding him was Jason Williams, who on his best day can’t hope to stay in front of him. Rondo shook him and had a clear alley down the right side of the paint. But Howard was looming, ready to pounce.
So Rondo went back to his left, keeping Williams in front of him and effectively using him as a shield between him and Howard. That put distance between them and cut down the angle of the shot blocker. It was a beautiful play, just one of many he made on a night when he scored 25 points and had eight assists against only two turnovers.
“Offensively, I didn’t have to do as much as it may seem,” he said.
That’s the beauty of the Celtics right now, savage as that beauty may be at times. No one is trying to do too much. No one is trying to do more than their share. They have become, one again, a ruthless and efficient machine.
This is no longer a trend and it’s and no longer a surprise. They won two games against what had been the best team in basketball on that team's home floor.
The final margin was a combined seven points, which speaks to how close these two teams still are, but whether it was seven points or 70, the Celtics have two games in hand with three to play at home, and that’s the only number that matters to them right now.
“I wish we could take them to Alcatraz for four days and be on the island all by ourselves,” Rivers said. “Everywhere they go, they’re going to hear how great they are. We haven’t done anything. You need four wins. We have two. So we have to just keep playing basketball.”