After yesterday’s game, I started thinking to myself (a scary thought, I know): What does the loss mean?
I had figured Orlando would roll over and die, so I was quite surprised when they landed the first punch and then kept punching. For the first time all series, it seemed, the Magic showed a little heart. In the second half, at least, both teams played at their absolute highest intensity level. The play wasn’t always pretty, but it was gritty — just two teams duking it out with a Finals berth on the line. If you couldn’t admire the tenacity being displayed yesterday on both ends, you shouldn’t be watching basketball. Period.
But what did it mean that Orlando won a game, in Boston, with both teams playing as hard as possible? That should be a bad thing, right? Right?
That’s what I thought at first, before contemplating anything. Before I let this game sink in, I was worried about the whole “If the Magic win Game Five, pressure’s on Boston for Game Six” thing. I’d just seen my Celtics suffer a heart-wrenching defeat, so I was in a bad mood in the first place. Couple that with Orlando’s intensity boost and I was in full-blown ut-uh mood. In my bothered state, I forgot about a couple things: One, the Celtics are still leading 3-1. It’s going to take three more wins for Orlando to turn this series on its side. Unlikely, even if the Magic were clearly the better team. They aren’t.
The other thing? The Celtics played poorly, very poorly, yesterday. Rajon Rondo was not himself, Paul Pierce was great but fell into full-fledged “hero” mode, and the C’s generally posted one of their worst offensive offerings since the playoffs began. It wasn’t that nobody made plays — some Celtics did, at times. But the ball wasn’t moving, only Pierce was attacking, and Rondo was non-existent. The Celtics executed as poorly as possible (“It’s amazing how poorly we played and yet were still in the game,” Doc Rivers said) and STILL could have won that game.
Why did they still have a chance, despite playing so poorly? Because Orlando doesn’t have enough offensively. It sounds weird to say because the Magic were one of the best regular-season offenses in the NBA, but they don’t have enough offense to consistently score against Boston. Jameer Nelson is their only player who can consistently create offense for himself or others… and even he doesn’t do it on a consistent, game-to-game basis. He was fabulous yesterday, but Orlando can’t expect that type of effort out of Jameer night in and night out. And Vince Carter, brought to Orlando be the Magic’s Mariano Rivera, is more like Harry Houdini — the man disappears, especially when it matters most. Actually you can’t say he disappears, because everyone knew he was on the court. But we only knew he was there because he played so horribly. Never a good thing.
The Magic’s lack of creators was the reason why yesterday’s game went to overtime and the reason why the Celtics lost a heart-wrenching game rather than a blowout. Whenever the Magic seemed poised to pull away they hit a dry spell and Boston would come storming right back. Even when the game was tied and Orlando had the ball with 28 seconds left, I felt no fear. Honestly, I turned to my brothers and said, “Who do they go to right here? If it’s Vince, they’re screwed. If it’s anyone else, they’re just as screwed. There’s no way they score right here.” And they didn’t. Jameer Nelson settled for an ugly jumper and the Celtics were granted another opportunity to steal a win. They didn’t, of course, but only because the C’s showed no poise — literally none — on the offensive side of the court. Had the Celtics kept their heads, even a little, they would have won last night and been waiting L.A. or Phoenix in the Finals today.
What you can take out of last night’s game is that the Celtics will improve. They will play better. They will sharpen their execution and move the ball rather than see it stick in one person’s hands. Rondo will attack and run the offense more smoothly. The Celtics will be better.
At the same time, I’m not sure the Magic have another level to obtain. Jameer Nelson played out of his mind, Dwight Howard was as monstrous as he ever will be and J.J. Redick got hotter than the Ecuadorian sun. Sure, Vince Carter was awful and could play a whole lot better but — if you’re a Magic fan — do you actually trust that he’ll do anything besides shit the bed in Game Five? Me neither. The Magic played pretty well last night while the Celtics played as poorly as possible, and the game STILL went to overtime.
If the Celtics don’t win Game Five, even on the road, I’ll be shocked. Seriously.