The play encapsulated everything about the Celtics in Game 3. Leading by the fairly preposterous score of 34-17 early in the second quarter, Rajon Rondo raced down the court in pursuit of a loose ball.
There was no real reason for Rondo to go after it like that. The Celtics had a huge lead and Jason Williams had a rather sizeable lead in getting to it. But Rondo kept running and soon he was on the floor, like a miniature version of Dave Cowens, scratching, clawing and fighting for every advantage.
Rondo came up with the ball, bounced back up on his feet and scored.
“Pure grit,” Kevin Garnett said. “I told him after the game, that was the play of the playoffs for me. It was just pure hustle. Pure basketball. Pure, I want it more than you. I thought it was a foul too, but that’s just me.”
The Celtics beat the Magic, 94-71, to take a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals, and there was no talk of letdowns, mental, physical or otherwise from the Boston side. The Celtics didn’t just beat the Magic Saturday night, they took their heart and crushed it in their hands like so much fine powder.
Of all the trends that have been emerging during the postseason, this one is the most compelling. It happened against the Heat. It happened against the Cavs and now it’s happening against the Magic. The Celtics are making teams quit.
“They kicked our ass from start to finish,” Matt Barnes said. “They played harder and wanted it.”
That shouldn’t be the case with teams at this level and at this magnitude of competition, but if there’s been one prevailing storyline in this series, it’s that the Magic were either physically or emotionally unprepared for what the Celtics had in store for them.
This is rather stunning actually because it shouldn’t be a mystery anymore that the Celtics will come at you firing haymakers like George Foreman in his 70’s prime. But there it is and Orlando is down on the mat, stunned, like Joe Frazier in Kingston.
“We’re motivated by what’s at stake,” Paul Pierce said. “We see the big picture as a team. You feel it in practice the last two days with our focus. You feel it on the court. The guys smell it right now. They know what it feels like to be in a championship. They know what it feels like to win a championship and you’re starting to see urgency really come out the closer we get.”
All that’s left is for the Celtics to deliver the knockout blow, and they don’t plan to win this series on points either.
“It wasn’t fun at all,” Ray Allen insisted after the game and he’s right. It’s not a lot of fun to punish your body and lay out for every loose ball. It’s not a lot of fun to get hammered going to the basket and have to get helped back up off the floor.
But it is rewarding and the end goal is staring them right in the face like a loose ball rolling on the court.
RONDO’S COWENS MOMENT
As mentioned earlier, the most amazing thing about Rondo’s play was that there was no real reason for him to push himself like that. It wasn’t, as the new in-vogue term is called, a 50-50 play. It was more like a 25-75 play.
From there the testimonials:
Paul Pierce: “That was just an example of how we felt tonight. We were going to do anything to try to get this game. That play by Rondo was special. It was spectacular to watch.”
Glen Davis: “He’s from Mars, man. For him to show the energy like that, we feed off things these like that.”
Ray Allen: “It was probably one of the toughest plays defensively I’ve seen in my career. It’s one thing to have the ball and make something miraculous happen. But not having the ball and making something miraculous happen, then score with it, that was awesome.”
Rondo has shown us so much in these playoffs, from his individual brilliance to his complete understanding of the Celtics offense and what buttons to push, but more than anything, he has shown his toughness.
Make no mistake. Every time he drove against the Cavaliers, Shaquille O’Neal was waiting to crunch him. There may have been a time in the past when that would have deterred Rondo, or anyone with a functioning brain for that matter, but Rondo kept coming back for more.
The Magic would like to do the same, if only they could catch him. Rondo has made Marcin Gortat look like a statue and he has come up with an array of rainbows and floaters to counter Dwight Howard’s shot-blocking prowess.
His stat line – 11 points, 12 assists, four steals – looks almost pedestrian when compared to some of the other mind-blowing combinations he’s put together. But, consider that in this game he had more assists than the Magic had combined and that he played a large part in forcing 17 turnovers, while keeping the Celtics margin at just eight.
“I will say this about Shorty, man, he’s in a zone,” Garnett said. “He’s showing the world what he’s made of and the future is scary for young’un.”
THE DEFENSE NEVER RESTS
It is a historical fact that at a certain moment in this game the Magic trailed by just one point. The score was 7-6 and there were six minutes and 55 seconds left in the first quarter. It was four a half minutes before the Magic scored points again and six minutes before they made a shot and in that time the game was for all intents and purposes, over.
The Celtics outscored the Magic 27-12 in the first quarter and held them to 4-for-17 shooting, while forcing six turnovers. It’s a testament to how well they played that their third quarter body of work -- 5-for-19, three turnovers -- didn’t quite measure up to their first.
They denied Howard position in the post, holding him to seven points on 3-for-10 shooting and they once again controlled the 3-point line, forcing the Magic into 8-for-30 shooting from deep.
Rondo, as only Rondo can, had the perfect deadpan response when asked if it was the Celtics defense or the Magic offense that was responsible. “They just missed shots,” he said.
Right, and LeBron stopped playing because he went into protest mode over a substitution. And Rashard Lewis is just having a bad series.
There is so much that goes into playing this kind of defense: The hands in the passing lanes and in the shooter’s faces, forcing the action on the pick and roll, denying the entry pass. But if there was one thing that stood out for Doc Rivers it was the effort on the rotations.
“Orlando is such a good team as far as stretching the floor,” Rivers said. “To be able to stop one action and then get back to another action, and that’s why they do it, it takes an amazing amount of effort. It’s not a glamour thing. You don’t really see it. But the coaching staff sees it, and it’s huge.”
By now everyone knows that the Celtics have taken away the most effective weapon for the Magic by not double-teaming Howard in the post, which has helped them shutdown Orlando’s 3-point game.
But they have also taken away the second aspect of Orlando’s offense, and that comes off the pick and roll. There are methods, tweaks and adjustments that come from this, but really it comes down to effort and trust.
“It wasn’t any ‘my faults’ tonight,” Rondo said. “Everybody was there helping each other off the floor, helping each other in rotations. It was one of our best defensive performances of the year, probably.”
HOW DO YOU DEFEND THIS TEAM?
The Magic started the series by making the tactical decision to shift Matt Barnes on to Ray Allen and leaving Vince Carter to fend for himself against Paul Pierce. After Pierce shredded Carter in the first two games, Barnes said he wanted Pierce, and the Magic switched back.
The Celtics were duly unimpressed.
“It doesn’t affect anything that I’m trying to do offensively,” Pierce said Friday after the team practiced. “It doesn’t affect anything that I’m trying to do offensively when we play the Magic.”
How about you Ray, anything change? “Nope,” he said before the game.
Pierce scored eight points in the first quarter on his way to 15, while Allen dropped seven en route to a tidy 14-point performance. In all six Celtics scored in double figures led by Glen Davis who had 17. The Celtics shot 46 percent, which is a decent number in this series, had assists on 23 of their 34 makes and also knocked down 55 percent of their 3-point attempts (6-for-11).
This has been their standard operating procedure throughout conference finals and it’s indicative of how they play when they are at their best.
“We have single guys that could go off, but I’ve never found that to be an effective way to play offense,” Rivers said. “I think it’s very predictable. We had a possession in the game tonight where the play broke down and I think we had eight passes with no dribble and Kevin ended up with the shot. That’s just unselfish basketball. The only guy we want dribbling it eight times is Rondo. Other than that we want ball movement.”
The Celtics have thrived in the postseason on identifying favorable matchups and exploiting them over and over again. The “adjustments” that have been made, at least the obvious, noticeable ones, have all come from the other side.
They are making other teams play them and, here’s the key, not trying to take it upon their individual shoulders, as broad and accomplished as many of them are.
“You have to be a veteran and you have to be willing to sacrifice if you want to win games,” Pierce said between Games 1and 2. “We understood that since we put this team together. That’s the way it works.”
The Celtics understand exactly who they are right now and that’s why they’re winning. It’s everyone else that is still having trouble trying to figure it all out.
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