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The Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic faced off Monday night in Game Four in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics were leading the series 3-0 and were looking to close things out on home court and punch their ticket to the NBA Finals. The Magic were coming off of a blowout loss Saturday night at the TD Garden and needed a win to stay alive in the series.
Orlando came out strong from the gate, pushing the tempo offensively whenever they could, opening up Dwight Howard (who finished with 32 points and 16 rebounds) for shots before the Boston defense could rotate and get back successfully. They took a four point lead into the half. They built up several leads of seven and ten points, but each time the Celtics would come back.
The end of the game saw magnificent shooting from Ray Allen, whose late-game three-pointers kept the Celtics in the game through the final minutes of the fourth quarter and in overtime. In the end, however, cold shooting and some clutch Orlando three-pointers (and Dwight Howard) proved to be too much for the Celtics, and they lost, 96-92, in Overtime.
Two things about Monday’s game are most indicative of how the offense seemed to change its strategy, and unsuccessfully at that. First off we have Rajon Rondo. The best point guard in the playoffs only had nine points and eight assists. Monday was a definite off-night for him, due in part to foul trouble that kept him off the court and forced Boston to use rotations that were not used to playing together. In all, the Celtics totaled just 19 assists, low for them (they had 23 Saturday night in their blowout victory). When the Celtics offense isn’t running through Rondo it can stagnate, and this is exactly what happened Monday during periods of the game. Shooting went cold, the Celtics stopped passing, and they missed shots or turned it over.
When the Celtics are passing they are at their strongest. That they did not pass as well shows in the scoring figures for the game. Whereas Saturday night six players scored in double-digits, Monday night only three did: Kevin Garnett (who put up a quiet double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds), Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. Paul Pierce (32 points, 11 rebounds) played incredibly well for three quarters, but his shooting went cold in the fourth and overtime, which is when Ray Allen (22 points) took over for the Celtics. But one player can never win the game for the Celtics, it has to be a team effort. And Monday the team offense just wasn’t there.
Although their playing picked up throughout the game, the Celtics defense looked flat for periods of the game. They had trouble with Orlando screens and pick-and-roll plays, and it led to open looks for three-pointers and fouls that put Orlando on the free free-throw line 33 times (although this was not necessarily an advantage; they made only 20 of their shots).
The big players, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, had strong nights (23 rebounds combined), but there was not enough team defense, just as there wasn’t enough team offense. Kendrick Perkins was virtually nonexistent during the game. While he has not been much of a presence offensively this whole postseason, he must do more defensively to contribute to this team. The Celtics got outscored in the paint 36-28, and they allowed 11 offensive rebounds. This allowed for too many second-chance opportunities for Dwight Howard, and he made them pay most of the time.
OK, this is not the time to panic, nor is it the time to get complacent. The Magic were down 3-0 in the series. They HAD to have this game, and they went out and got it. But the Celtics took the best the Magic had to offer and were barely phased by it. The Celtics can beat the Magic. They’ve already done it in Orlando twice, so they should have no dip in their confidence levels. Still, they will need to recreate the urgency with which they played the first three games if they want to beat back the Magic.
The Magic will come out just as strong or stronger in Game Five, and the Celtics must be ready. They cannot allow their offense to be flat, and they cannot get away from the offensive strategy that worked so well. Even if Rondo has another off night, they cannot get away from it. It’s very rare that Rondo gets into foul trouble, so it’s unlikely to happen again. The Celtics should use this game as fuel to fire them up. They do not want to come back to Boston up just one game.