On the one hand, the Celtics have won the first two games of a playoff series on someone else’s home court for the first time in franchise history. On the other, they won the contests by a combined seven points and both were hotly contested until the final seconds.
There is no sense of relief, accomplishment or gratification emanating from the Celtics camp. Truthfully, there shouldn’t be. The margin between them and the Magic remains small and while they have homecourt now, momentum can swing suddenly in a playoff series.
“We’ve done nothing,” Doc Rivers. “We really haven’t. We won two games and we’re up 2-0 and we just have to keep playing. Orlando was the favorite for a reason. They were playing better than anybody for a reason and we can’t take our eye off of that. Both teams are very good. Both teams are very close. Both teams play very similar in a lot of ways, so it’s not going to be a comfort game.”
The talk between games has been on adjustments and most of the large-scale ones in terms of personnel and matchups have come from the Orlando side of things. Perhaps J.J. Redick will see more playing time, although Stan Van Gundy said he wouldn’t change his starting lineup. Maybe Matt Barnes will guard Paul Pierce instead of Vince Carter.
The Celtics? They’ll make a subtle adjustment here and a minor tweak there, primarily in their defensive coverages, but you won’t see anything exotically different from them in Game 3, and for good reason.
“It doesn’t affect us,” Rivers said. “When you’re down 2-0, you do make some changes. We have to anticipate that. But they’re not going to make many changes. We are who we are, they are who they are, they’re just going to try to do it better. Barnes or [Mikael] Pietrus will probably guard Paul. Vince will go to Ray [Allen]. That’s how a lot of us thought it would start in the series and now they’re just going back to that.”
The pressure is on Orlando now. A week earlier the Magic were thought to be the best team in basketball, but that feels like a long time ago. Usually it’s Game 4 that is the swing game in a series, but facing a 2-0 hole and the prospect of playing three of the next five in Boston, it’s no stretch to say this is a must-have game for Orlando.
Here’s what to watch for:
DWIGHT HOWARD CAN GET HIS 30, AS LONG AS NO ONE ELSE GETS 20
The Celtics made a choice a long time ago that they wouldn’t send extra help on anyone unless it was absolutely needed. They didn’t double Dwyane Wade. They didn’t trap LeBron James. Extra attention, yes, but on this team you have to play the other superstar one-on-one.
The Celtics’ philosophy is that superstars will be superstars. Boston wants to make it as hard as possible on the other team’s primary offensive option, but perhaps more importantly, the Celtics want to make sure that they prevent other options from getting on track.
Dwight Howard is the Magic’s superstar, but he is not their best offensive player. The Celtics have proven in the first two games both that they can neutralize Howard and win and that they have also proven that they can give up a monster game and win.
In Game 2, Howard scored 30 points on 9-for-13 shooting and had his way with Kendrick Perkins, who fouled out in 15 minutes. However, Vince Carter, Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis shot a combined 11-for-33. Carter and J.J. Redick each scored 16 points, but it took them 24 shots to get there.
Still, the Celtics want to make it harder on Howard in Game 3.
“We don’t want him to go for 30, but when he goes for 30 he goes for 30. There’s nothing we can do about it,” Rivers said. “As long as he didn’t go for 30 and get everyone else involved, we can live with it. We were not happy with the way we defended him. We did not have a great night defending Dwight. We have to do better. We have to expect somebody on their team to start making shots. If we give him 30-plus and they start making shots then you can’t beat them.”
Perkins (and Rasheed Wallace) defended Howard brilliantly in Game 1, but Stan Van Gundy made an adjustment and got Howard the ball in better post position, and on the move, where he could maneuver around the rugged Celtic defenders.
“You can’t let him set up shop where he wants to set up shop,” Perkins said. “You’ve got to kind of force him outside his comfort zone just a little bit. Do I take it personally? Yep, I do. I’m a defender so I do take it personally. Guy got 30 on me, but it happens to the best of us. We ended up getting a win, so that’s really all that matters.”
True enough, but the Celtics also know that the Magic shooters will eventually start making a few, which brings us to the biggest enigma of this series so far:
CAN RASHARD LEWIS GET GOING?
The Celtics have made it a point to get a hand in Lewis’ face whenever he gets a shot, and he has had exactly one clean look from 3-point range in this series. Not coincidentally, it was also the one 3 that he actually made.
To the extent that they have a plan against Lewis, that’s it. Get a hand in his face.
“We just guard him,” Rivers said. “He’s actually had some shots that he’s not made. I think the key to us guarding Lewis, or any of their guys, is the better we are in pick and roll, the quicker we’re back in our rotations. If we can’t get back Lewis is wide open.”
Kevin Garnett and Glen Davis have taken turns guarding Lewis. Garnett gets a lot of credit, and rightfully so, but Davis has been great defensively matching up with both Lewis and Howard.
Lewis has been battling the flu, which helps explain his ineffectiveness, but he has also not taken it upon himself to try to initiate his own offense very much. Van Gundy took some of the blame for that, saying that he had to do a better job of getting shots for Lewis.
Yet the issue goes back to the heart of the criticism that has followed Lewis around during his career, namely that a player who has every tool in his offensive repertoire too often contents himself to hang out behind the 3-point line. As long as he does that, the Celtics can continue to play him the way they have.
“[Just] trying to keep my hand up,” Garnett said of the approach. “Baby and myself have the responsibility. Tell you the truth; a lot of the focus is on Jameer and Dwight. I’m sure he’ll be real aggressive in Game 3, so I’m anticipating that.”
WILL MATT BARNES MATTER?
The Magic threw what might be called a change-up at the Celtics before the series when they announced that Matt Barnes would guard Ray Allen, leaving Carter to fend for himself against Paul Pierce.
Pierce thoroughly destroyed Carter in Game 2, scoring 28 points with much of that offense coming off one-on-one plays. So now the Magic are thinking about switching back with Barnes, saying that he wants Pierce. Barnes, who talks an awful lot for a player of his stature, went on to call Pierce a “flopper.”
Pierce was unmoved.
“Obviously they want to play better defensively, probably on me,” Pierce said. “Who knows what they’re going to do as far as trapping and different matchups. It doesn’t affect anything that I’m trying to do offensively when we play the Magic.”
Oddly enough, the move Magic fans want to see is inserting J.J. Redick into the starting lineup ahead of Barnes. Redick has done a credible job against Ray Allen, which was the reason for the switch in the first place.
The Celtics are in a very good place when it comes to points, shots and offensive responsibilities. Simply put, they don’t seem to care.
“The beautiful thing is Paul is on the other side,” Allen said. “[Rajon] Rondo’s got the ball. A lot of times if I run hard enough, they stunt and then Kevin goes underneath the basket and then Perk’s open. There’s a method to the madness. If I don’t shoot, if I don’t score, somebody is because I did my job.”
The Celtics are uniquely constructed to avoid matchup problems because they have four accomplished scorers and a center who understands that his job is to get dunks off help and on offensive rebounds.
Interestingly, the Celtics are more concerned with two other potential adjustments. The first is a zone defense, and the other is if the Magic play big with Lewis, Howard and Marcin Gortat.
Matt Barnes? Not so much.
CAN KEVIN GARNETT GET HIS OFFENSE GOING?
It’s not all roses for the Celtics, who have had periods of offensive stagnation, particularly at the end of Game 1. To combat that, they often like to go through Garnett on the post, but the Magic have taken that away.
So, the Celtics got Garnett on the perimeter and got him shots that way. Garnett was just 5-for-16 in Game 2 and he missed a number of makeable jump shots. One way or another, the Celtics still need Garnett to contribute offensively, even with his superior defense.
“I want him to take [his shots],” Rivers said. “I want him to take them more. That’s one area that we have not performed well, because that’s a shot we want him to start taking more. He can get those shots. Down the stretch of [Game 2], he got a couple and made them. That stretches their defense. In this series, they’re denying him with the double teams on the post. We knew that coming into it. What we’re trying to do is get him to the elbows and get him to the spots on the corner to stretch the floor.”
If Garnett can start knocking down shots, the Magic will inevitably have to drift out to the perimeter with him, which then opens up the paint for Rajon Rondo.
For the Celtics, it’s all connected offensively. One individual strength opens up another and then another. They have won two games by having at least two players thrive in the same game. In the opener, it was Allen and Pierce. In the second game it was Rondo and Pierce.
That’s a winnable formula, but they also know that Orlando simply is going to start shooting better at some point, and they will have to win a game when at least three of their stars get their offense.
WILL THE LAYOFF MATTER?
The honest answer is, we’ll find out when the game starts. The Celtics say they were chastened by their experience against the Cavs when they got blown out in Game 3 after a three-day layoff between games.
“We didn’t take these practices for granted,” Pierce said. “Knowing that a 2-0 lead isn’t safe until you win four games, I don’t know if we took it for granted last time, but I tell you, we’re not this time.”
Rivers pinned the Celtics loss to the Cavs – the last time they lost a game to anyone, by the way – on poor practices and a lack of focus. He said things were different this time.
“We had good practices so that won’t be an excuse,” he said. “I think we’ll be ready.”
The Celtics have to know that they will get Orlando’s best game on Saturday. This series isn’t unfolding like the Cleveland series where they found mismatches and exploited them to death. At least not yet.
The Magic are still very much alive, but the Celtics have the chance to put them on life support with a big effort in Game 3.