ORLANDO -- Angry isn’t the right word to describe the Celtics mood after getting run out of Amway Arena in Game 3 against the Magic. Disappointed. Frustrated. Those work.
The Celtics walked into a buzzsaw Friday night against an energized Magic team playing in a hopped-up building, and except for a brief moment at the end of the third quarter (playing with a “goofy lineup,” as Doc Rivers called it) they simply failed to land any effective counter-punches.
Say this for the Celtics: They know how to make things hard on themselves, and now their backs are against the proverbial wall against the Magic’s front line that’s a mighty big all wall indeed. “It’s a must-win situation,” Kendrick Perkins said of Sunday’s Game 4. “We’ve got to get it. Nothing else needs to be said.”
But a whole lot more can be said about Game 3. From the outset, the Celtics were on their heels. Rajon Rondo alternated between his whirling dervish attack the basket game and his in-between set which consists of a lot of floaters. When he falls into the latter he loses his most essential element--speed.
“That’s never good for us,” Rivers said. “He went to the floaters. We have to keep showing him how good he is (when he attacks).”
Ray Allen never got into a rhythm, Paul Pierce didn’t find his groove until late in the third quarter, Big Baby Davis and Brian Scalabrine played most of the night in foul trouble, and if not for Eddie House going 6-for-7 it would have been a whole lot worse.
The Celtics shot just 43 percent, and only 5-for-18 from 3-point range, and a lot of that had to do with their inability to get stops on the defensive end, but there’s no escaping the fact that through three games of this series Pierce, Rondo and Allen are all shooting below 40 percent. (Allen is stuck at a very un-Allen like 30 percent).
They have been successful only when they have been in attack mode and while they played with more intensity than their woeful Game 1 showing, they were still a step slow on close-outs and loose balls.
“We are going to come back,” Rivers said. “You know us. We’ll be back. (But) everybody was off tonight.”
They can’t afford that in Game 4. Without Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe their margin for error is very slim, and they didn’t even have their vaunted defense to fall back on…
1. ABOUT THAT VAUNTED DEFENSE
Rivers: “Our defense was awful.”
Scalabrine: “Very disappointed with the defensive effort. I can look in the mirror. I didn’t take the challenge.”
Rondo: “Terrible tonight. That’s it.”
Pierce: “We were indecisive defensively. We didn’t get to their shooters. We allowed (Dwight) Howard to come down the middle. When you give them their inside game and their outside game, you don’t have a chance.”
That about sums it up on a night when the Magic shot almost 60 percent and this wasn’t an inflated 60 percent either. Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis and Dwight Howard were a combined 24-for-37. As Pierce said, it was a systematic breakdown on all sides.
That the Celtics defense has slipped without Garnett is not much of a shock, but that it could have been shredded like this definitely was.
The one time the Celtics were able to get back into the game late in the third quarter when Rivers had Stephon Marbury in the game to press Anthony Johnson fullcourt. During that stretch the Magic scored just two points and turned the ball over twice as the Celtics sliced the lead down from 18 to a more manageable nine points.
“We had to trick it up to get back in it,” Rivers lamented.
All those breakdowns and all those made shots certainly had something to do with the Celtics passive play offensively, but outside of Game 3 against the Bulls and Game 2 against Orlando, the Celtics have not put together an entire 48 minutes of Celtics defense.
It’s tough to rely on something if it’s not there anymore.
2. DWIGHT HOWARD MADE GOOD
The Magic’s young center felt so bad about his Game 2 effort that he felt compelled to apologize to his teammates and coaches for his play. “It starts with me,” he said after that one, and indeed it did Friday night.
Howard scored 17 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in just 27 minutes. He also blocked five shots, although the Celtics weren’t sure that all of them were legit.
“I know he’s a great player and he’s the Defensive Player of the Year,” Perkins said. “A lot of those shots were flat-out goaltending. If that’s the case I should be able to do that every play.”
For his part Rivers also questioned whether all of Howard’s blocks were legit, but either way, there’s no denying his impact on defense. “He’s tremendous,” Rivers said. “He’s a freak. We know that. Listen, if we allow him to be a great athlete then he’s going to be the greatest athlete because he is. He was phenomenal. His numbers may not show it, but I thought he had a great impact on the game tonight.”
Perkins has played Howard about as well as anyone can be expected to play the most physically dynamic center on Earth. He has not allowed Howard to go crazy offensively and he has made him work for everything he gets. But Howard can still change the game on the other end of the floor and he did so Friday night.
3. THE CAPTAIN GETS IN A GROOVE; SORT OF
Paul Pierce scored 27 points. That was good. He got the line 14 times and made all 14 of his free throws. This was also good. But Pierce still hasn’t been able to go to work and take over a game like he has done so many times in the past. Even when he got isolated on mismatches, Pierce wasn’t able to do his mid-range thing that he does so well.
“He’s doing a little bit like he did in Chicago where he’s getting too deep,” Rivers said. “I think he has the best in-between game in the NBA. Getting deep with Howard standing around isn’t necessarily the best move.”
After a sluggish two weeks with the Bulls this has been nothing short of a bizarre series for Pierce. He played just 16 minutes in Game 2 and scored 21 of his points in the second half of game 3.
His matchup with Turkoglu is a tough one because Turk is basically the Euro version of Pierce. Like Pierce, Turkoglu has a strong in-between game, and like Pierce, Turkoglu is the guy his team looks to for offense at the end of games and when the shot clock is winding down.
Their battles are always physical and Pierce caught at least two elbows in the chops when Turkoglu drove to the basket.
The Celtics survived one series without Pierce playing at his best. It remains to be seen if they can survive another.
4. ANTHONY JOHNSON’S WEIRD NIGHT
So, you’re Anthony Johnson and you’re an 11-year veteran who has survived in the NBA by being a consummate backup point guard. Whatever your team needs, that’s what you’re going to give them, whether it’s 18 minutes a night or the occasional spot start, that’s how you make your living.
And when you get your chance to start a huge second round playoff game because your starting point guard got suspended for making a silly heat of the moment mistake you respond by scoring 13 points and generally saving the day.
“Anthony Johnson set the tone,” Rivers said. “He’s a wily old tough vet and he came to play. He deserved it. He’s a guy that’s paid his dues.”
It should have been a career-making night for Johnson, but then he got in argument with Stan Van Gundy and sat for the entire fourth quarter.
“I was pissed and he was pissed that I was pissed,” Van Gundy said. “I was upset at the pass that he threw and he thought that Courtney (Lee) should have done a better job of coming to meet the ball, which was true, but nonetheless you don’t throw that pass out there. AJ and I are fine. I have tremendous respect for him I think he’s got respect for me.”
5. IT’S NOT CHIPPY, UNDERSTAND
Before Game 3, Rivers was reminiscing about the time he got in a fight with Phoenix’s Kevin Johnson while he was with the Knicks.
“I lost my freaking mind for 10 seconds,” Rivers said. “I got knocked down and the next thing I know, I’m swinging and I’m jumping up and down and I chased him to the bench. Unfortunately, I was with the Knicks and it activated (Anthony) Mason and Greg Anthony and (Charles) Oakley and (John) Starks and it was a bad situation.”
With that history, you’ll forgive the Celtics coach if he’s less than concerned that the perception is that this series has become “chippy” as one reporter put it. But he might have reason to be after Perkins got tagged with a Flagrant 1 foul for an elbow that landed high on Orlando’s Mickael Pietrus.
“I was just trying to elbow (anybody),” Perkins said. “I was just fighting through screens.”
Howard, who was suspended in the Philly series, laughed when asked about elbows.
“I’m trying to keep my elbows down,” Howard said. “I call them, ‘The people’s elbow.’ I’m going to keep them down. It’s the playoffs. It’s very physical. We understand that. We know that Boston’s a very physical team and we have to take those shots.”
Compared to the Rockets-Lakers simmering blood feud, this series has been intense, physical even, but chippy? No. But as always, the NBA will have the final say.