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This game was over in the first quarter. This series was over and given a brilliant summation with just under 9 minutes in the first half, with an all-out hustle play by Rajon Rondo that would make Larry Bird proud, to dive and take the ball (and the series) away from Jason Williams and the Orlando Magic. As the Boston Celtics dismantled the Magic and their postseason hopes, 94-71 in Game 3 at TD Garden in Boston to take a 3-0 series lead, this team has gone a long way to prove that they are a far cry from what most thought they were.
And certainly, as well as understandably, most thought they would be the same aging team of veterans that stumbled through a regular season plagued with injuries and apparent disinterest. But these are not your regular season Boston Celtics. The Celts came into the postseason preaching it, and the fans came in hoping for it: that this team could coast into a postseason berth, making certain to allow time to rest the aging bodies and regroup for the postseason. The hope was that this team could turn it on at the right time and fire on all cylinders in the games in May and June that would mean the most. And now they are one win away from their second trip to the NBA Finals in three years. Let the “BEAT L.A.!” chants commence.
As much as this game, a wire-to-wire domination by the home team, was another statement by the Celts that this team has come full circle to full fruition at the perfect time, it is just as much an indictment of Stan Van Gundy and the Magic. This was a team that hadn’t lost a game in what seemed like months; a team that had steamrolled through the postseason up to this Eastern Conference Finals with two sweeps in its first two series (albeit against the two teams they would match up the best against). They fought back admirably in the first two games after the Celtics began to impose their will down in Orlando, but ended up squandering home court advantage as well as the one Dwight Howard offensive showcase they were bound to get (and won’t get again. And still, he only had eight rebounds in that game. Not a complete game). Everyone knew Orlando’s season was on the line, needing to get back into this series with their already solid defensive play, and some semblance of a contribution from Rashard Lewis and the offensive threats they do possess. But, Van Gundy’s crew would come out completely flat and uninspired, apparently unaware of the hole they had already dug themselves in.
The Magic should be embarrassed. Rondo’s dive truly did sum up what the difference has been in this series, whether you view it as cliche’ or not: the Celtics want it more. Williams should be utterly ashamed of the effort he gave on that play, as he had at least two steps on Rondo and a clear path to the ball. This is your chance at another shot at the Finals. This is your entire season already teetering on the brink in the second quarter of Game 3, and you don’t dive face first for that ball as Rondo did? Van Gundy would go on to lament after the game that he didn’t have his team “better ready to play.” How is that possible? How could every hustle play and 50/50 ball go in the Celtics favor when they’ve gained the decided advantage through an already impressive display of will and grit? How do you not come out with the mindset of a rabid dog cornered, with nothing to lose and everything left out on the floor? This Game 3 uncovered the Orlando Magic as a soft, front-running, fraudulent team that’s only engaged when things are going well. And things have not gone well for Orlando. They’ve gone from bad to worse.
As the Celtics took immediate command of the game, scoring their first 21 points on 7-0 and 14-0 runs respectively, the Magic shriveled up into the one-dimensional team that they are offensively when Dwight Howard is rendered ineffective. Their one glimmer of hope came in the form of a small second quarter run, as that one dimension proved somewhat fruitful as Jameer Nelson and Orlando began to hit some of the threes they were hoisting up. But that’s the trouble with playing from behind. The Celtics forced Orlando into attempting threes to try and come back in the game, and defended the three point line pretty well, as the Magic finished just 8-30 from behind the arc. Dwight Howard disappeared on the offensive end (seven points on 3-10 shooting), and Rashard Lewis, who was such a huge factor in Orlando’s seven-game series win over Boston last year, has yet to appear himself, scoring just under his average point total for the series: 4 points.
The Celtics once again dominated the pace and tone of the game, with Rondo’s brilliant postseason continuing despite numbers that don’t completely jump off the page (11 points and 12 assists, but what does that SAY about this kid?!). If last year’s postseason was Rondo’s coming-out party, this year’s postseason has been his solidification and backing up of the talk that he is in the conversation when you talk about the top three point guards in the league. And once again, this postseason has been all about the Celts being buoyed by a strong performance and team-leading scoring by a different player every single game. They have not had back-to-back games in the playoffs where one player on their roster lead them in scoring. Saturday it was Glen Davis. Seventeen points and six rebounds (three on the offensive end, where he seems to live) later, Davis proved that while his role would be knowingly diminished with Rasheed Wallace in the fold, he still has the ability to get up for huge games and help this team when it matters most.
Time is quickly running out on Orlando, and now they do not have almost four full days to soak the series in and try and realize what they’re facing. However you may view it, Monday night’s Game 4 will be a chance for the Boston Celtics to thumb their collective noses at most who did not consider them a factor coming into the regular season or the postseason. Cleveland got Shaq. Orlando got Vince Carter. This past off-season was littered with talk of the moves made by the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic to prepare for what seemed like another inevitable showdown between the two teams, as Boston was left out of the conversation. But now?
Bring on the Lakers.