John J. Karalis /www.redsarmy.com /@redsarmy

I asked one question in all the pregame media availability.

Hey Doc, why haven’t the Celtics had the letdowns we’ve seen during the regular season?

The Celtics then promptly opened the game flat.

Even with almost 18,624 itching to blow the roof off the joint.  Even when the chants started during warmups, moving the noise meter without any guidance from the jumbotron.

Didn’t matter.

Suddenly, an offense the Orlando magic hadn’t been able run all series long sprang back to life.

Drive… dish… swish.

The Celtics stifling defense, which had frustrated Orlando’s snipers, no longer had  hands covering their scopes.

Drive… dish… swish.

The dribble penetration, which had been cut off time and time again was tearing into the heart of the Celtics defense, causing bad switches, poor rotations, and clean looks.

Drive… dish… swish.

This game had a different feel from the beginning.  Orlando clearly wasn’t ready to quit, and the Celtics clearly weren’t ready to finish the Magic off.

“I thought everybody wanted to win the game,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers.  “I thought everyone showed up to win the game.  But I think at times when you have a chance to do something, close a series out or win a big game, each guy tries to do it themselves.”

After the Celtics offense sputtered, the Magic pushed the ball up the floor quickly and created enough mismatches to shoot 63% in the first quarter.  They drained 4 of 9 from deep.  They  had 6 assists.  Role players like Matt Barnes (8 1st quarter points) woke up.  The Celtics defense looked a step slow and a bit confused as they let the Magic become themselves again.  And a big part of that was because of Jameer Nelson.

“The first three games [Nelson] wasn’t as aggressive as he needed to be,” said Magic center Dwight Howard. “Tonight he was aggressive. He was attacking the basket. That’s what he did in the first two series. We need him to just continue to do that.  He was effective tonight attacking and making good passes to whoever was open.”

Nelson spent a good portion of the game forcing the Celtics to make decisions that they haven’t had to make in a while. Nelson finished with 9 assists, but he was responsible for a lot more than that simply because he pulled guys out of position. A lot of Dwight Howard’s 32  points came simply because his man had to help and Dwight was getting the ball in spots where he could finish rather than worry about making a move or having to contend with Kendrick Perkins.

But as poorly as the Celtics played, they wouldn’t go quietly into the night.

Paul Pierce (32 points, 11 rebounds) carried the Celtics on a night where Rajon Rondo (9 points, 8 assists, 3 turnovers) didn’t have it. The Celtics never fell behind more than 8 points, but they never quite seemed to be able to make the run you might have expected from a team playing still managing to hang around in an ugly, tight game.

That is, until Dwight Howard smacked Kevin Garnett.

It happened in the 3rd quarter with the Celtics down 55-49. It wasn’t intentional, but KG didn’t like it, and he let Dwight know about it. The play resulted in a technical foul on Garnett, but it also woke up the Celtics, and the restless crowd.

Suddenly, the building was rocking.

Pierce banged a J.

Ray finished a break with a dunk.

KG hit a jumper.

One-point game.

Still, the Celtics couldn’t quite get over the hump.  Orlando went into the 4th down 1, but they pushed it to a 7 point lead with 2 and a half minutes to go.  And if the Magic had a go-to guy, they would have put this thing to bed right there.

They traded for Vince Carter to be the guy in that situation. He was supposed to be Mr. “I’ll take over when we need a bucket.” But he couldn’t do it.

All he could manage was a 1-9, 3 point night. He was pulled at the 3:57 mark for Matt Barnes, and he sat without even batting an eye.

The C’s went on a run and tied the game. They had the ball at home, with the clock winding down, and the ball in Paul Pierce’s hands. And they never got a shot off.

“It was supposed to be Paul at the top with a  pick-and-roll with Ray,” explained Rivers. “The floor was supposed to be flat and spaced. When you look at it, half our team was standing next to Paul. The execution was so bad—I thought we executed poorly throughout the whole game.”

“Just pretty much screwed it up, pretty much turned the ball over and that’s all it is,” said Pierce. “Couldn’t get the final shot. Sometimes it happens that way but that’s no excuse. We still had opportunities in overtime and we didn’t take advantage of it.”

They missed more than opportunities in overtime. They missed almost every shot they took. Both teams did, until Nelson banked in a three. He followed that one up with a much prettier shot from downtown. When the C’s got close with one last run, Howard closed them out with a couple of layups.

This one won’t end up on a loop in the Hall of Fame, but Orlando didn’t need it to be pretty. They just needed to look up and see a bigger number on their side of the scoreboard for once.

“At some point,” Stan Van Gundy said, “somebody is going to come from down 3-0 and win a series. The only thing I knew for sure was it would start by winning Game 4.”