Here’s the thing with Game 7’s. As Paul Pierce likes to say: “Anything can happen.” You might get a wide-eyed blowout a la the Hawks last season and you might get one of the best one-on-one duels the sports has ever seen like when Pierce and LeBron James went toe-to-toe.
“They’re not for everyone,” Pierce said to the press in Orlando after his Celtics frittered away a golden opportunity to close out the enigmatic Magic on the road Thursday night, losing 83-75. Over the last two seasons, Game 7’s have become the Celtics trademark -- not that they welcome that designation. (“Too many,” Doc Rivers said with resignation.)
With that experience comes the knowledge that a play here or a play there can mean the difference between a vacation in the islands with Joakim Noah or a one-way ticket to Cleveland to try and do the semi-impossible and knock off the LeBron’s.
So they will have experience on their side Sunday night and they will have the Garden crowd. But in this series, perhaps more than any other, no one should take comfort in anything that has come before because after each game has been sliced, diced and dissected the next one bears shocking little resemblance to the game that preceded it.
The Celtics cut the Magic’s heart out in Game 5 and then unraveled down the stretch in Game 6 with turnovers, wide-open misses and clanked free throws. Because of their experience over the last two seasons no one will be worrying about the Celtics mental state the way they worried about Orlando’s, but the offensive execution was just as poor.
But that’s par for the course, because this is a series where the Celtics can run the Magic ragged with a small lineup one night and then get blown out of the water the next game by quickness and energy. They can win when Pierce plays only 15 minutes and they can lose when he makes shots on three straight possessions and looks like the old Truth.
This is a series where the Magic can shoot 59 percent one night and 36 percent another and win both games. And this is a series where Ray Allen can’t make a shot and Brian Scalabrine can cold block a Rashard Lewis jumper.
Going into Sunday’s Game 7, the only thing we know is that nobody knows anything anymore. The Celtics led all night despite a phenomenal performance by Dwight Howard, and lost it in the fourth quarter without Howard making so much as one shot.
And on it goes.
Someone will win Sunday and it will make their season. Either the Magic will finally take that long-awaited next step or the Celtics will go to Cleveland secure in the knowledge that they accomplished every last thing a team without a Hall of Fame big man and its best (and maybe only) low-post scorer. But what can we expect? Only that it will be unexpected. Here are five more things we learned Thursday night.
1. THE MAGIC DIDN’T CHANGE FOR DWIGHT HOWARD
You are likely to see headlines and endless parades of talking heads insinuating Howard got what he wanted (i.e. more touches) after his Game 5 smackdown of his coach, Stan Van Gundy. After all he had only 10 shots in Game 5 and he had that many at the half.
Oh, Howard got more touches. He got up 16 shots and had 12 free throw attempts, but Van Gundy didn’t change a thing in his offense. Almost all of Howard’s points came on offensive rebounds and dunks in deep, which is essentially how most of his points have come throughout this series. When the Magic did post him up he either ran into a Kendrick Perkins-sized brick wall and passed out, or he tossed up his undeveloped hook shot.
The difference was that Howard got himself involved. He had 10 offensive rebounds and on a night when he finished with a Moses Malone-esque 23 points and 22 rebounds, it felt like more.
“When Dwight is playing with he energy and effort that he played with tonight and really maximizes his athletic gifts, he’s very tough guy to play on the move,” Van Gundy said.
But change the offensive structure? No.
“When you get 10 offensive rebounds, you get more shots,” Van Gundy said. “I don’t think our play-calling was any different than it has been. He might have had fewer post-ups tonight than he had in Game 5.”
If only Van Gundy had left it there.
2. STAN VAN GUNDY IS NOT HANDLING THIS WELL
The Magic coach opened his press conference by calling out media members. OK, nothing new for him. Van Gundy loves to tweak the press when they ask a question he doesn’t like. But he called them out for things they wrote after Game 2.
“We have bad night,” he said. “Some of the people down here killed our guys for Game 2. That will happen in the playoffs when you play real good teams. It happened to Boston in Game 3 and I don’t think their papers were calling them unprofessional and everything else. They’ve actually seen enough playoff series to know that those things actually happen.”
Two questions: Why bring this up now; and what does this have to do with anything? If Van Gundy wanted to back up his team why didn’t he do it then, or after Game 3? With everything that is swirling around him and his star center, why pick more fights after what should have been a satisfying win?
But that was just the warm-up act, because then, Van Gundy made a weird analogy about getting in an argument with his wife and he came perilously close to shooting back in what is rapidly becoming a clash of wills between star player and coach, and surely Van Gundy knows that he can’t win this battle with Howard.
“I don’t look at it like he put any pressure on me,” Van Gundy said. “He knew he had to come out and give a great effort. I don’t think it was because of the comments he made. When my wife criticizes me, which isn’t often and certainly not as much as I deserve, my first reaction is to blame someone else. To make an excuse because I don’t like being criticized.”
Van Gundy’s tortured analogy puts the blame back on Howard for his public outcry. During the game, Orlando’s respected veteran point guard Jameer Nelson told ESPN he told Howard that he made a mistake going to the media. That should have been enough.
Now we’ve got two more days of Howard and Van Gundy and if the Magic don’t win Game 7, this will not end well for one of them, and it’s not likely to be Howard.
3. TURNOVERS KILLED THE CELTICS
All season long the Celtics’ Achilles heel offensively has been turnovers. They ranked 28th in the NBA in turnovers at 15.6 per game, finishing ahead of only the run-and-gun Suns and the point guard-challenged Thunder. During the playoffs, the Celtics had cut that number down to 13 a game, but it reared its ugly head at some unfortunate times Thursday night, particularly in the fourth quarter.
“It’s tough to score when you turn the ball over 19 times,” Rivers said. “We were sloppy with the ball. Simple passed got turned over. It’s tough to win that way.”
The Celtics turned it over eight times in the fourth quarter with the worst one coming on what should have been a simple inbound pass coming out a timeout after Hedo Turkoglu’s 3-pointer had made it 81-75.
“We feel like we beat ourselves tonight,” Perkins said. “We’d get stops and turn the ball over.”
The prime culprits were Perkins and Rajon Rondo (five apiece) and that detracted from solid offensive performances by both. Rondo, especially, was brilliant for the first three quarters and he finished with 19 points and 16 rebounds.
"We didn't run out of gas,” Rondo said. “I guess we just choked. We turned the ball over and things did not go our way. Turnovers led to a lot of points. We did not get to the free throw line like we wanted to. We only got there 13 times. We were not the more aggressive team tonight. They fought back and stuck with it. We did not get the punch out."
When the Celtics go back and look at the tape they will see that this game was there to be won, if only they had taken better care of the ball.
4. BIG BABY’S LEARNING CURVE CONTINUES
Glen Davis got his first foul three minutes into the game. He got his second and his third after only four minutes of court time.
When he did play he rushed his jumpers and held the ball too long in the post. He finished with only six points and two rebounds and recorded a -12 in the plus/minus category, the lowest mark on the team. It was not a good night for Big Baby.
“It was frustrating,” Davis said. “Things didn't go our way the whole game. The only people to blame are ourselves because we let the refs take us out of our game and also let Orlando take us out of our game. We can't worry about that and have to go out and play.”
No question, the Celtics didn’t get the benefit of a lot of calls. Orlando shot 31 free throws to the Celtics 13, and was called for 13 fewer fouls. It wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last that a team on the road in the playoffs doesn’t get the calls, and therein lies the difference between youth and experience.
Davis has taken huge steps during the playoffs to make himself into a credible offensive threat. He will be a restricted free agent after the season and there is a tendency to think that his big scoring nights and clutch shots will lead to a big payday from someone after the season.
But he is not a finished product by any means and whether anyone will shell out huge money in a depressed economy with a shrinking salary cap is very much an open question.
Given Garnett’s injury and the struggles of Pierce and Allen at various times, the Celtics have been relying on their young players more than they would like.
“I don’t know if this is considered a veteran team,” Rivers had said before Game 4. “Last year was a veteran team, with Kevin playing and (James) Posey and P.J. Brown. This is actually a very young team. Last year you knew who you were going to be every night.”
Some nights they have been brilliant. Other nights they have been off, which in part explains why the Celtics have been so up and down in this series.
5. SOMEONE WILL START MAKING 3’S, AND THAT SOMEONE WILL PROBABLY WIN THE SERIES
The Magic shot more 3-pointers than any team in the league besides the Knicks. The Celtics shot a higher percentage behind the arc than any other team in the NBA. But neither one of them can get going in this series and whoever breaks through first will have a huge advantage.
In the last three games, the Celtics and Magic have put up 121 3-pointers, and made just 26. With the implausible exception of Rafer Alston no one has been immune the last few games from a case of the bricks.
Allen, Pierce, Lewis and Turkoglu were a beyond ugly 1-for-19 in Game 6 (although Turkoglu’s make was the back-breaker in the fourth quarter). Eddie House didn’t even get a 3-pointer off and credit has to be given to rookie Courtney Lee who has played the cooler to House’s hot hand.
Allen, in particular, missed wide-open looks in Game 6. The Celtics will take those looks again Sunday night and if they are going to pull this off they will need some of them to start going down.
(Mike Petraglia contributed to this story from Orlando.)