Plenty of road work ahead
Closing out Magic is no easy task
The obvious question as the Celtics head back to Orlando to try to close the door on the Magic, having spoiled an opportunity to close out the Eastern Conference finals on their home floor Monday night, is whether the Magic cracked the code in their 96-92 Game 4 win or if Boston’s problems were self-inflicted.
For Orlando, the largest adjustment was the inherent urgency that comes with facing elimination, but the aggressiveness of Jameer Nelson and Dwight Howard — from the start, when Howard knocked down a fluid jump hook, to the finish, when Nelson fired up a pair of back-breaking 3-pointers — was just as critical.
The Celtics have never really believed in the idea of adjustments, but in simply correcting the things they know went wrong. The flaws from Game 4 were execution — particularly on the final play of regulation — and energy early on.
If Game 4 was about how the Magic would respond as they gasped for air down three games to none, tonight’s Game 5 is about how quickly the Celtics can correct the issues they so readily recognized after the loss. If they go into Amway Arena tonight and drop another game to the Magic, they will have resuscitated a team that was in critical condition.
“Game 5 is going to be a tough one back on their floor to play,’’ Celtics captain Paul Pierce said. “We’ve got to try to get another win in their building. That’s the goal.’’
The Celtics had said that closing out this series would be almost as difficult as setting the tone with the first three wins. They were up three games on the Miami Heat in the first round when Dwyane Wade exploded for 46 points on his home court, extending the series, if only for a game.
Monday’s loss was different. The signs were apparent early on that the Magic weren’t going to make it easy.
The energy from Howard and Nelson, the two pillars of the franchise, was expected, but Rashard Lewis, who had been absent all series, and Matt Barnes, who had battled back problems and matchup issues, both made their mark early. The 3-point line, practically roped off with caution tape by the Celtics in the first three games, suddenly opened up. Barnes missed his first attempt from long range, possibly because he hadn’t gotten a look that good all series.
The Magic put the Celtics on their heels for the first time, taking the fight to them early. Trying to end the series, the Celtics were never in a position where they could dictate. Instead they spent the night responding to the tone and energy level that Orlando set.
The exclamation point from Game 3 was easily Rajon Rondo diving at Jason Williams’s ankles for a loose ball and coming up with it for a layup. But the Magic, for the most part, made all the heady hustle plays in Game 4, whether it was Lewis casting out his arms to come up with two first-quarter steals on Rondo passes or Howard’s persistent effort on the glass (16 rebounds, 5 offensive).
Looking at the Magic, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, “I thought they had far more energy to start the game. I thought they jumped on us. I thought they played harder in the first half. They got all the loose balls. They won the 50-50 game. They made all the extra plays. And then, from that point on, we’re fighting back to get back into the game.’’
Even in Game 2, when Howard scored 30 points, he seemed uncomfortable. But Monday night, Howard got wherever he wanted to be on the floor, took 19 shots and, as Rivers put it, “started to dominate,’’ taking advantage of Kendrick Perkins.
With Rondo off the floor for much of the first half because of fouls and muscle spasms, Perkins was in a position where he couldn’t focus solely on defense as he had done all season. But at the same time, he was unable to make an impact offensively, missing both of his shots from the floor and getting all 3 of his points from the line.
“The problem is on the other end right now, they’re not guarding Perk,’’ Rivers said. “And with Rondo not going [well], we needed another offensive player on the floor.’’
Traveling down to Orlando yesterday, the Celtics rested and watched film, but they were pinpointing their problems the moment they left the floor. Correcting them will be the key to closing out this series.
“We really don’t want to come back here and play a Game 6,’’ Pierce said. “The sense of urgency is going to be there when we get on the road. So hopefully we can take care of business.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.