There were five minutes left and the Celtics were down by 10 points when Doc Rivers put his starters back on the floor. It was, as he said later, “a gamble” because at the time the players who were doing the most on the court were Stephon Marbury and Eddie House. But if the Celtics were going to go down in their building they were going to go down with the ones who had brought them here.
And so began either the greatest escape these playoffs have seen or an epic collapse. It all depends on how one chooses to look at it. The Celtics will undoubtedly pick the former because in those last five minutes they suddenly came alive after playing the previous 43 in something that approached a catatonic state.
Glen Davis hit a pair of jumpers. Ray Allen reached in to get a steal off Rashard Lewis, who had once again owned the Celtics for much of the night, and then Paul Pierce hit an impossible layup after an expert backdoor cut. Suddenly the lead was down to four and here’s where we get to the part about the collapse.
Lewis uncharacteristically bricked a 3-pointer with Davis closing fast. On the other end Allen zipped a pass into Kendrick Perkins, who despite barely being able to lift his left arm over his head, banked in a layup. Now it was two points and after a couple of misses both ways, Allen finally found the range on a 3-pointer that put the Celtics ahead for the first time since it was 8-4.
Afterward Stan Van Gundy blamed the officials and Dwight Howard blamed Van Gundy for making the Magic play slower in an effort to burn clock, but the Celtics took delight in showing once again their resilience down the stretch.
“Nobody’s rattled by the situation we’re in,” Allen said. “So everyone can be calm and make the right plays.”
About that calmness: the Magic have carved out a reputation for hectic play and folding when things get tough. Game 5 was a microcosm of those sentiments.
“Teams in the NBA have a habit of getting too confident and they stop playing,” Perkins said. “When you’ve got a team down 10 with five minutes left you need to build on it.”
Rivers demurred when asked about Orlando’s penchant for blowing leads, saying, “They’re a hell of a basketball team, guys, and they’re capable of making shots. I mean Lewis had that one three. And you’re playing with fire, really. And we played with it and got away with it tonight. But they’re a hell of a basketball team.”
The Magic really are a hell of a basketball team. They won 59 games and absolutely demolished the Celtics for most of Games 1 and 5 and all of Game 3, but all they have to show for it is a 3-2 series deficit and some serious soul-searching to do before Game 6 back in Orlando.
The Celtics? They did it again. Left for dead with no way out, they found a way to pull it off.
“We’re just…we’re really grinding here,” Rivers said. “I don’t know if people appreciate what these guys are doing with the minutes and their legs. But I really do.”
Again: A great escape or an epic collapse? It’s all how you choose to look at the last four minutes and 55 seconds of what was undoubtedly the strangest stretch in an already bizarre series. Here are five things that we learned in more definitive fashion from the Celtics' 92-88 win.
1. KENDRICK PERKINS GOT ROBBED
Brian Scalabrine had a question for his questioner.
“Who here has a vote for the All-Defensive team?” Scalabrine wanted to know.
“None of us do,” he was told. The coaches vote on that.
“I can’t believe that,” Scalabrine said. “I have a hard time seeing how he didn’t get enough votes.”
He is Kendrick Perkins and he will undoubtedly get votes for the All-Defensive team next year. It’s just a shame that it’s taken this long for people to recognize how truly good he is.
“I’ll take him defensively over anyone in the league man on man,” Scalabrine said. “And he’s a good team defensive player and he’s extremely bright in the sense of knowing what we need to do on the defensive end. I’m not shocked by (how he’s played Dwight Howard) at all. I’m only shocked by the lack of votes.”
Perkins is hurt. There’s no getting around that fact. His left shoulder was once again wrapped tight after playing 35 grueling minutes. Perkins had six points and 11 rebounds but those were just window dressing when you consider that he made Howard practically invisible on the offensive end.
“The key is not giving him any dunks,” Perkins said. “You’ve got to make him into a scorer. He’s a super athlete. No doubt about that. He’s not a Kevin Garnett. He’s not a turnaround jumper over the right shoulder fade away. There’s only been a few guys in this league that can get you a bucket on the block. Dwight is a great player but you got to make him score over the top.”
Howard has had his moments in this series but they have been few and far between, at least on the offensive end. Make no mistake, Howard was one of the biggest reasons the Celtics struggled so much offensively for the first three quarters, because every time someone drove the lane, he was waiting.
But offensively, Perkins has done what very few big men in the NBA are capable of doing and that’s play Howard straight up. The Magic feasted all season on having their shooters bomb away from the outside when teams inevitably brought a double team down on Howard, but the Celtics haven’t had to do that because of Perkins.
Afterward Howard expressed his frustration.
“I’m not going to get up here and bash and say anything about what should happen,” said Howard who then proceeded to do just that. “I will say it’s tough to win when all season long you play inside out and you trust one of the people that got you off to a good season. I think I’m capable of scoring in the post so you know, I just don’t think 10 shots, I don’t want to say it’s all about offense. You got a dominant player, let him be dominant.”
The only problem is Kendrick Perkins has not let Dwight Howard be dominant.
2. RAY ALLEN ISN’T HERE TO TALK ABOUT THE PAST
Early in his career, when Ray Allen would get into foul trouble, he’d be mad at himself. He’d start thinking about how he was screwing up his minutes and messing up the rotation and then he’d be off for the rest of the game. It was then that he realized what this game is all about.
“It doesn’t mean you play less minutes,” he said. “It just means that your minutes change. The rotation starts earlier. Mentally I started learning the game. Stick with it. You have five points in the first quarter, but you might have 20 points in the second half. What you need to do is stay focused and know that the time is going to come when you need to make the next play. It might not be a shot. It might be a loose ball. You don’t know when or if, you have to stay ready.”
So it was that Walter Ray Allen, after missing eight of his first 10 shots, came around a screen with a minute and 20 seconds left and his team down two points.
“Before I took it, I wasn’t thinking about the miss,” Allen said. “You’re in a position where there’s a play in front of you and you see what needs to be done. Once I came off I saw (J.J. Redick) trailing me I was just thinking: Is the shot coming?”
The shot was most definitely coming, and as he has done so many times in his spectacular career, Allen drained it. His selective memory may come in handy during the game, but in the early morning hours of Wednesday he will think long and hard about the shots that he had.
“When I fall asleep tonight, I’ll think about this game,” Allen said. “I’ll think about the plays I needed to make, the turnovers I had, the shots I missed. I’ll want everything back.”
But that last one? That last one makes up for an awful lot.
“Once you make that shot that wins the game,” he said, “it’s all forgotten.”
3. GLEN DAVIS CONTINUES TO GROW INTO MANHOOD
After his epic Game 4 game-winner every headline read that Big Baby Glen Davis had grown into a man. Well, there’s more to growing up than one shot.
Early in Game 5, Davis appeared tense, like he was rushing his shot. The Magic were determined to shut down the Celtics’ driving lanes and that led to a lot of kick-outs for jumpers and also a lot of misses for Davis. Big Baby was just 3-for-9 at the half and 4-for-11 after three quarters.
“He’s still learning,” Allen said. “He was pressing because he was wide open and he had a shot. I told him at halftime, ‘Glen, that’s when you’ve got to move the ball and get a shorter shot. You’re going to get it right back.’ He’s still learning to play with the players we have here. Once he does, he’s only going to get better.”
But in the fourth quarter Davis made four of five, including two huge jump shots when the Celtics were beginning their comeback.
“You know, it’s tough for a young guy,” Rivers said. “He makes a big shot and he gets all that attention. You never know how he’s going to handle it, and I don’t know that he handled it all that great to start with. But then after that, once he got his legs under him and his head right, he was phenomenal.”
4. A QUICK WORD ABOUT EXECUTING DOWN THE STRETCH
With eight seconds left and the Celtics up three, Paul Pierce wrapped up Rashard Lewis as soon as Lewis received the inbound pass. Lewis made both free throws and the Cetics got it to Ray Allen who made both free throws.
It was still a three-point game when Glen Davis wrapped Dwight Howard in a bear hug after Howard received the inbound pass. The Magic were out of timeouts so after Howard made the first shot, he intentionally missed the second, but Davis was able to get the rebound and make two more free throws to ice the game.
It was perfect execution and the exact opposite of what happened in Chicago in Game 4 when the Celtics failed to foul and Ben Gordon hit a game-tying 3-pointer.
“That was terrific,” Rivers said. “Hell, that was absolutely the best job we’ve done. Clearly we’ve improved since the Chicago series. But that was as good as you can do it with fouling. Our rule is nine seconds and under. We were going to foul. We knew eventually they were going to run out of timeouts.”
The decision to foul was obviously correct but what took it from smart strategy to brilliant execution was the manner in which Pierce and Davis gave their fouls. By wrapping up Lewis and Howard and not allowing them to even attempt a shot they did the opposite of what the Mavericks’ Antoine Wright did against Denver’s Carmelo Anthony. The Mavs had a foul to give in that situation and when refs let the play continue Anthony wound up hitting a game-winning 3-pointer.
The next day, before Game 4 in Orlando, Rivers talked about the need to commit the right foul, not the “Wright foul.” Better late than never.
5. AND NOW GAME 6
The turnaround will be short and around the press room opinion was divided on whether the Celtics had driven a stake through the Magic’s heart, or whether we’d all be back here for a Game 7 on Sunday.
The players had no illusions that this will be easy.
“You see a few guys on their team that are frustrated, but you never know,” Perkins said. “I know those guys are going to come out and compete hard. We’ve just got to be ready to take all the blows.”
To a man the Celtics feel that their Game 6 win in Detroit last year was the biggest of their playoff run. They constantly pointed back to it during the regular season as proof of their tough-minded approach. Now they get another chance to prove it.
“It’s huge,” Rivers said. “We’ve got to come in with the right mindset. I thought in Chicago, that close-out game, we came in with the right mindset and lost a triple-overtime game. But we came in with the right mindset. If we can come in with that, we’ve got a shot.”
It would be unwise to underestimate the Magic because even after they took turns blaming everyone but themselves, they will still be at home with a superstar center and an unguardable forward in Rashard Lewis. Whether they choose to utilize all of those things to their fullest benefit is something of a mystery at this point, but they have proven that when they do employ those elements they are very tough to beat.
“I know we’ve won a lot of Game 7’s,” Paul Pierce said. “But anything can happen and our mindset is to go down to Orlando and just get the win by any means necessary. We’re not a team that gives a game away and says, ‘hey, hopefully we win it at home.’ No, we want to try to get down the down there on the road.”