Doc’s orders being closely followed
His influence on this team was questioned several times during the regular season, so much so that he considered walking away following the season. But the Celtics players are now digesting every word from their commander and because of that, they are one win away from a return trip to the NBA Finals.
The Celtics scored 21 of the first 27 points in their 94-71 Game 3 Eastern Conference final victory over the Magic. They led by double digits nearly the entire game, using that game-opening run to suffocate the life out of a Magic team whose desire was sputtering from the opening tip.
They seized the moment with the same energy that allowed them to take the first two games in Orlando while the Magic reacted with shock and apathy.
The series had taken a Conan O’Brien-type hiatus between Games 2 and 3, giving the Celtics 72 hours to either bask in their accomplishments from the first two games or focus on closing out the series.
The last time this three-day break happened between Games 2 and 3 the Celtics paraded into practice after a day off, hardly taking Rivers’s warnings of complacency seriously. Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett missed practice with injuries. The rest of the squad practiced as a separated bunch, some convinced Cleveland would return in Game 3 with a vengeance while others convinced the Celtics’ Game 2 statement was enough to carry them through the series.
Of course, the former was true. Cleveland stomped on the Celtics’ pride, raced to a 36-17 lead, and cruised to a 124-95 victory, the Celtics’ worst home playoff loss in history.
The same thing could have occurred last night, had the Celtics laid down as they did two weeks ago and had the Magic generated the desire to compete in this series. The Celtics responded with a 7-0 run to begin the game, a clear message about their motivation.
“I think the difference was the last couple of days of practice,’’ said forward Paul Pierce, who finished with 15 points with nine rebounds. “Before the Cleveland game, we had worse practices. You saw the focus [this time]. You saw the urgency and at this point, we’re too close to where we want to be.’’
Orlando said all the right things after dropping the first two games, but it obviously had no fight and no idea how to attack the Celtics. Orlando dropped a couple of jumpers to climb back to within 7-6 but Boston ended the suspense with a 14-0 run, capped by a Garnett jumper.
TD Garden had not served as a place of comfort during the regular season. Boston had dropped a stunning 17 of 41 games at home, many times wasting leads with second-half breakdowns. When the Celtics took the first two games of this series in Orlando, they followed their regular-season suit, appearing more comfortable on the road.
The Celtics won at Los Angeles (Lakers), Orlando, Cleveland, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City during the regular season but lost to all those teams at TD Garden. There was a legitimate sense of concern that the Magic could potentially swoop into Boston, win both games and get back homecourt advantage.
Rivers promised reporters the past two days that practices were more intense than the two that preceded Game 3 against Cleveland. But what is he supposed to say? “ ‘Yeah folks, today’s practice was terrible and we’re going to get blown out tomorrow?’ ’’
Rivers said little about the workouts before Game 3 against the Cavaliers. This time, he honestly expressed his contentment with how his team had prepared and the Celtics’ Game 3 execution was not only a sign of a lesson learned but an example of how much they are heeding Rivers’s words.
“We got a chance to sit on a team and watch them and study them,’’ Pierce said. “You can tell in practice that guys are going home and watching film, reading their scouting books. It’s just that the attention and focus is so there. You look around and nobody’s laughing, you don’t see people talking. You kind of kid around during the regular season because it’s a long season. You get weary. But at this point guys are tuned in and you see it every day.’’
The Celtics’ postseason showing is a reflection of Rivers’s remarkable affect on this team. This playoff season has exposed how critical coaching is to a championship-caliber team. Neither Mike Brown nor Stan Van Gundy have been able to motivate their team to play consistently well against the Celtics.
Rivers didn’t have that problem. If there was any doubt about his coaching ability and command of the roster, Game 3 should erase those concerns.
“We learned a pretty good lesson the last time; we lost by 1,000 to Cleveland,’’ Rivers said. “So, you know, it wasn’t hard to get them to at least see that. That doesn’t mean they weren’t going to come out and play well. I thought they all talked about it, we talked about it on the first day of practice when we got back, what happened. So still, like I said, it doesn’t guarantee anything. But we did have a pretty good working model on what not to do. I thought we did it. Now we have to do it again. We have to resist the temptation of looking forward and we have to play. We have to win a game here.’’