Game Notes: Celtics at Magic
Chicken McNuggets not enough to fuel Magic victory.
by Jay King / @celticstown
Before the 91-80 loss, before the Orlando Magic were systematically dispatched by their rivals the Boston Celtics, before the Magic’s latest failed attempt to validate a midseason trade that reeked of desperation, before Stan Van Gundy said his own team was not in the same ballpark as the Celtics or Miami Heat, the Orlando Magic relaxed in preparation for their season’s latest, biggest game.
Jameer Nelson ate Chicken McNuggets. Earl Clark downed a carry-out box of chicken wings. Dwight Howard joked that it wasn’t his fault Lebron James had scored 51 points, explaining that he’d done his own variation of James’ powder toss before every game this season. Gilbert Arenas cracked jokes from the trainer’s table. And Jason Richardson vowed his new team would not back down.
“They ain’t gonna bully anybody over here, man,” Richardson said. “I don’t think we have any weak links on the team that are going to back down from these guys. That’s their mindset. They want to get in your head, take you out of your game. But we’ve got a strong-willed team.”
A strong-willed team whose will looked broken on Sunday afternoon, after getting shredded by Rajon Rondo and his snarling, chest-bumping, trash-talking teammates. It was a decidedly more somber Nelson who, after Sunday’s defeat, was asked what made playing Boston different from playing any other team. He paused for a second, as if to decide which way he would respond.
“They’re better,” he finally said. “They’re better.”
Orlando played like a team whose very manhood was in question, like a team whose reputation was on the line. The Celtics play with a physical edge, the Magic knew, and the Magic were determined to fight elbows with elbows. Dwight Howard shoved Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett in the back on separate occasions. Hedo Turkoglu sent Garnett tumbling to the floor. Quentin Richardson chirped in Paul Pierce’s ear at every opportunity. Howard earned a technical foul for reacting to Kendrick Perkins, and Jameer Nelson earned one for having Howard’s back.
Despite all of Orlando’s passionate play, they were falling into a trap Richardson promised they wouldn’t.
“All the guys that play a lot, they’ve been in the league long enough to know what type of team the Celtics are,” said Richardson. “They try to attack you mentally, and after that you could lose your mind and start going crazy.”
Howard started the day like a freakish combination of Jimmy Chitwood and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. A left-handed sky hook registered the game’s first two points. A runner that scraped the Boston clouds on its way over the backboard later counted for an and-one. Howard’s first half, filled with 22 points and six rebounds, was everything Magic fans hoped for upon hearing he worked with Hakeem Olajuwon this summer. Yet the Celtics didn’t change a thing. They just executed their strategy – single coverage on Howard, so they could better close out on Orlando’s stable of shooters – more effectively.
“You can’t hold your head down,” said Perkins. “You can’t get into this slump where you’re feeling bad for yourself or want somebody to feel sorry for you because a guy’s got it going. The best thing is just regroup, get mad about something, and just go out there and do what I can to try to shut him down.”
OK, so the Celtics actually did change something about their strategy. They gave Rondo free reign.
“When Jameer picked up that one [early] foul,” explained Doc Rivers, “we just decided to go basic open spread. And we told Rondo to get to the rim and use his instincts.”
Rondo normally prefers a passive-aggressive style of basketball. He’s aggressive while making plays, but hesitant to finish those plays himself. He’s the type of player who would rather find a teammate open for three than make an uncontested layup himself. But yesterday Rondo was different. If he’s normally Chinese water torture, driving opponents crazy one small droplet at a time, Rondo morphed into Keyser Soze, an aggressive, feared, elusive, cold-blooded killer with the Orlando Magic in his crosshairs.
On one play, Rondo drove baseline. Howard and the rest of Orlando’s interior defense awaited him in the paint, and, at that point, Rondo’s pass-first instincts usually take over. But remember, this was Keyser Soze Rondo. He was driving to score and to assassinate, not to dish, and so he rose up for a dunk. The contact was coming, Rondo knew, but he took flight anyway. Boston’s All-Star point guard would not complete the dunk, as he was fouled and knocked on his butt. But he bounced right back to his feet.
Whatever happened on Sunday, the Celtics remained undeterred. Orlando started the game with a 12-2 run, so the Celtics buckled down. Marquis Daniels fell motionless to the floor with a bruised spinal cord, but the Celtics only played more fiercely. Howard went bonkers, so Perkins and Glen Davis searched within themselves for an extra gear. Orlando attempted 30 more field goals, but Boston still found ways – specifically, free throws and three-point close-outs (Orlando shot 3-24 from beyond the arc) – to win.
Before the game, Howard half-jokingly told a reporter, “No Kendrick Perkins questions.” He didn’t want to discuss his foe, the player who usually causes him as many problems as any other defender in the League.
When the comment was relayed to Perkins, the Celtics’ anchor chuckled.
“I don’t know, he might be superstitious or something,” Perkins said with a rare smile. “I don’t want no questions about him either.”