How quickly the Boston Celtics have gone from league laughingstock to Eastern Conference superpower in their oft-doubted pursuit of an 18th career NBA title.
In impressive yet shaky fashion, the Beantown Green disposed of the Orlando Magic, previously undefeated in the playoffs and winners of every game in the last month. That’s a hell of a way to show what they are still capable of.
Not getting nearly enough credit for their series win over the coddled Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics are showing fans, pundits, and, most importantly, opposing teams that they can still make a successful run.
To be fair, though, the outcome was looking bleak. After middling performances during the regular season, Boston sidled up on everyone by blowing out the Miami Heat — a feat that not many perceived as very impressive. Accordingly, everyone was expecting LeBron and his pals to deliver a swift kick to the Celtics’ bum and oust them from the playoffs.
Not so fast. While the Celtics have seen dips in offensive output and field-goal percentage since the regular season, they have simultaneously rediscovered the defensive prowess that propelled them to a championship just two years ago.
During the regular campaign, Boston surrendered 95.6 points per game to their opponents, ranking them a solid fifth in the league in that category. Since the playoffs started, though, they’ve completely shut down opposing teams, giving up only 91.7 points per contest in their first two series. That ranks second to only the Orlando Magic, who did, well, magical things on defense against the Bobcats and Hawks.
Accompanying that defensive improvement for the Celtics is a drop in opponent three-point field-goal percentage and a noticeable rise in turnovers forced on defense. That successful effort on the long ball is exactly what the team needs to contend with the Magic; it is no secret Orlando shoots the triple with unmatched abundance, so if Boston can be effective in its close-outs and perimeter defense, it can hinder Orlando’s production severely.
Why do I mention all this defensive jargon about the Celtics? Well, they excelled on that end of the ball on Sunday, and that was the primary justification for the Game 1 victory.
First of all, Boston was superb in containing Dwight Howard on the inside. And that is due in large part to the play of Rasheed Wallace off the bench. Since Doc Rivers publicly criticized his play following Game 1 of the series with Cleveland, Wallace has come back with much more inspired basketball. While it hasn’t always translated into success on the offensive end (he only scored five points in Games 3, 4, and 5 of that set), he has shown a greater commitment to defense and a more evident passion to win overall.
If you watched the game Sunday, you could see how frustrating Wallace was to Howard on defense. He denied the entry pass, pushed and shoved aggressively, and forced him into turnovers and errant shots. Giving up quite a bit of weight to Superman, ‘Sheed used his length perfectly to shut down one of the league’s most dominant interior forces.
Kendrick Perkins isn’t half bad on the inside either, but he is often in foul trouble. Rivers will call upon Wallace to play key minutes on the defensive end, so if he can duplicate his Game 1 showing, he will put the Celtics in great position to advances to the NBA Finals.
On display, too, was the Celtics’ containment of the other half of Orlando’s offense — the three-point ball. After every kick out or skip pass to the open shooter there was a Boston defender already en route to close out. When they start to miss from deep, they begin to take more threes off the dribble and in traffic, which causes problems. That commitment and effort translated into a paltry 23 percent from long range for Orlando. The Magic will never win a game if Howard can’t score and they can’t hit their three-point attempts.
The one concern for Boston following the Game 1 win is Orlando’s back-court production. Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter combined for 43 points on 17-36 shooting, as both were aggressive and rewarded in driving the lane. Kevin Garnett looked more vulnerable than ever in the pick-and-roll game on defense, which is a primary reason Nelson and Carter were so successful going to the rack. That said, their scoring is a small price to pay for the fine defense on Howard and the three-point shooters.
After a month of smooth sailing, Orlando is now the team on the hot seat. With that decisive win, you have to consider Boston the favorite from here on out. The Magic will need to respond in kind by forcing the issue on the inside with Howard. If he can wreak any significant havoc near the rim, shots will start to open on the perimeter. As long as they take easy three-pointers, they will eventually fall, and that’s what they need to emerge victorious.