It’s a little hard to pinpoint when it was exactly that the Celtics got their groove back.
The first notation in this reporter’s notebook came when Rajon Rondo drove hard to the basket against Dwight Howard and took the pounding when Big Dwight brought down 265 pounds of pain. That seemed like a big moment anyway, but at the time it merely made it Orlando 66, Boston 46 after Rondo made his free throws. Still, it was an indication that if the Celtics were going to down, they weren’t going to pull a New Orleans.
The aggressiveness may have been back, but the actual turnaround on the scoreboard didn’t come until the fourth quarter when the Magic finally started missing back-breaking 3-pointers like the kind Hedo Turkoglu put down while falling out of bounds, or the one Mickael Pietrus made as the shot clock was expiring.
It was a heck of a lot easier to figure out when the Celtics lost it. That was at the 7:15 mark of the second quarter when a 30-30 tie suddenly turned into an 18-point halftime deficit. “That was the difference in the game,” Doc Rivers said. “The last eight minutes of the second quarter."
So, something was said at the half, right? “I said some things,” Rivers said. “But I don’t know. I don’t think it was a speech. I’ll leave it at that.”
“That’s Ubuntu for sure,” Brian Scalabrine offered. “We keep that in house.”
One thing is certain however, after the Celtics clawed their way back from an obscene 28-point deficit to actually have a realistic chance of stealing the game: Nobody was really happy about it. On either side.
“When you lose it’s the same feeling,” Paul Pierce said. “You don’t want to lose.”
“For the first 30-32 minutes we played the best we’ve played all year,” Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. “And then for the last 16 minutes we played as poorly as we possibly could at both ends of the floor.”
You’d like to make a sweeping generalization about the Celtics stirring comeback, or the Magic’s seeming inability to handle big leads, but after this one the only thing we know is that Orlando got its win in Boston and the Celtics have their backs up against the wall. Again. Everything else was just for show.
1. AS RONDO GOES…
Rajon Rondo was bad in the first half—1-for-7, two points and two assists bad. Rondo was less bad in the second half, but nowhere near good enough to carry the Celtics the way he did against Chicago.
“There was a point—about four minutes gone in the third—he tried to shoot that floater and missed it and I called him over and said, ‘Rondo, you’re not playing with speed.’” Rivers said. “It’s tough to make a floater when you’re walking. He was trying to read the defenses instead of playing with his instincts."
Rondo scored his points from the free throw line, where he made 10-of-12 in the second half, but he still shot a woeful 2-for-12 from the field and turned the ball over seven times. And still, it was Rondo’s defense that turned things around.
“We could not handle Rajon Rondo’s pressure,” Van Gundy said.
Rondo’s counterpart, Rafer Alston, didn’t exactly light it up either, but he doesn’t have to for the Magic to be successful. What he did was take Rondo out of his comfort zone offensively and he made a huge shot with the Magic clinging to a four-point lead in the final two minutes. He was good enough, in other words.
This isn’t all on Rondo. He, Ray Allen and Kendrick Perkins shot a combined 3-for-19 in the first half, but once again, without Kevin Garnett the Celtics go as Rondo goes.
The telling play for Rondo’s night came with the Celtics down 89-77 with about four minutes left in the game. As he waited to pick up the inbounds pass to save clock, Alston scooted in and almost forced a turnover. Rondo wrestled the ball away and somehow found Scalabrine for a 3-pointer that ignited the Celtics final charge, but the realization, like the comeback, came a little too late.
2. J.J. REDICK IS NOT BEN GORDON
Which is to say that Redick isn’t nearly as dangerous a shooter, but he also wasn’t going to get caught giving up a 51-point game either. Van Gundy joked before the game that he was pretty sure that Redick could keep Allen from dropping half a hundred and he, and Pietrus, did even better than that, clutching, grabbing and harassing Allen to the tune of a 2-for-12 shooting night.
With the Celtics down four, 91-87, Allen finally got a reasonably clean look at a 3-pointer, and it rimmed in and out. “For me, I don’t think I got great rhythm shots tonight,” Allen said. “It was one of those nights. It went in and out.”
For the Celtics to win this series, Allen and Rondo have to own their matchups in the backcourt. Combined they outscored Alston and Redick, 23-20, but that’s not nearly enough.
3. THE RASHARD LEWIS NIGHTMARE SCENARIO
In a league of unique talents, Rashard Lewis stands out. He’s 6-foot-10, but he shoots 3’s. He’s not one-dimensional by any means, but that one dimension is so freaking good that it sometimes detracts from the rest of his game, and the entire Rashard Lewis package is a problem for the Celtics.
He scored 14 points in the first half against Big Baby Davis and Scalabrine and it was 14 of the most effortless points one can reasonably expect to score against the Celtics. That he finished with “only” 18 is a testament to the Celtics defense. We have heard over and over again that Garnett’s absence in guarding Lewis would be a big factor in this series and while KG wasn’t on the floor he still made his presence known when he pulled Scalabrine aside and told him what to do.
“Kevin tells it like it is,” Scalabrine said. “Kevin told me, ‘You don’t have that kind of ability. You’re not going to block his shots. You have to do your dirty work early.’” And by dirty work, Scal meant forcing Lewis into an uncomfortable position before he gets the ball. “Do it early,” Scalabrine continued. “Your best bet is to challenge his shot and hope that he misses.”
Even more than Howard, Lewis is the one player the Celtics don’t have a physical counter for and stopping him will require an awful lot of work, dirty and otherwise.
4. THE BENCH SHINES AGAIN
If not for Stephon Marbury’s play in the second quarter, the Celtics might have been looking at an even bigger deficit. For about three minutes, Marbury looked like (finally) the guy they, and everyone else, has wanted him to be from the moment he got here.
He is faster than Anthony Johnson and quicker than Alston, and if not for Rondo’s revitalized play in the second half he would have had a bigger impact on the game. “He was terrific,” Rivers said. “It’s a tough call for a coach because you wanted to go back to him in the second half. Rondo got it going and then we were playing with such speed, that we just stayed with that group. But Steph gave us a shot.”
Marbury, Scalabrine and Eddie House gave the Celtics valuable minutes both offensively and defensively and that was about as good a sign as can be taken for the Celtics Monday night.
5. BONUS SCAL
One of the keys to the Celtics way of doing things is knowing your role, and whether it’s Kendrick Perkins holding down the middle of the defense or Eddie House bombing from long range the Celtics have a defined way of looking at the basketball world.
So when a national writer, a good one at that, asked a typically thoughtful question of Scalabrine, he demurred. “That’s more like a column (question),” Scalabrine said. “I’m more of a beat writer question. I’m not really a column guy. Go get something from Ray.”
It was that kind of night at the Garden. Rondo playing in two different gears, the Celtics falling behind by 28 points and rallying to within four, and Scalabrine getting asked column questions.
Pierce is a column guy, so we’ll leave it to him to sum up the big picture. “It’s like a boxing match and you get hit with a hook and an upper cut and then you decide to fight,” he said. “We can’t do that. We’ve got to take the fight to them from the start.”