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“Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”
Former head coach Rudy Tomjanovich said those memorable words after the Houston Rockets swept the Orlando Magic in the 1995 NBA Finals, and that statement could — in theory — best describe the Boston Celtics as they defeated the Magic by the score of 95-92 in Game 2 of the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Finals to take a commanding 2-0 series lead heading back to Boston, and it probably does. Can’t help but harken back to 1996, either, when the Chicago Bulls road-blocked what many considered, until now, the best Orlando team in franchise history from making a return trip to the Finals. The circumstances were similar. Certainly there’s no comparison, in the sense that the 72-win Bulls are widely regarded as the best team in NBA history, but there are some eery similarities (subtle differences, too) in what is taking place right now in the postseason this year. After losing to the Magic a year before in the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Bulls exacted revenge in the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals with a sweep. In that regard, the Celtics are on their way to doing the same thing.
It’s a shame that the game ended the way it did for Orlando because this was a classic battle between two heavyweight contenders. Punches were traded back-and-forth for 48 minutes, but Boston was able to prevail.
In the early goings, the Magic adjusted their offense and tried to attack the Celtics’ defense by running pick and rolls, partly to encourage more ball movement but mainly to try to get points in the paint whenever possible. On the first couple of possessions in the first quarter, Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter aggressively attacked the basket but weren’t able to do much, aside from Carter making a layup and converting the and-one in one instance. Still, it was a good idea but one that was shelved almost entirely until the late stages of the fourth quarter because Dwight Howard was able to get into a rhythm offensively.
In the first couple minutes of the game, Howard struggled in the post but he settled down and scored throughout the evening without too many problems, whether it was against Kendrick Perkins, Rasheed Wallace, or Glen Davis. The main difference was that Howard’s teammates did an excellent job of feeding him with hi-lo passes so that he was able to be efficient with his moves on the low block. Many times, whether it was in 4-out/1-in offensive sets or just within the flow of the offense, Howard would catch the basketball, make a move immediately, and go up for the shot. In Game 1, not only was Howard deliberate with his moves when he was posting up but he was forced to do most of the work to get into a good position to score. Instead, Howard’s teammates made things much easier for him in Game 2 by allowing him to get into position and then passing him the ball. The results speak for themselves, as Howard scored 30 points on 9-of-13 shooting.
J.J. Redick was another bright spot for Orlando, especially in the first quarter where he was able to step on the floor, after Carter picked up his second foul in the middle of the period, and make an immediate impact. After the Magic were down 11 in the quarter at one point, Redick helped spark a 16-4 run to end the period by scoring nine points during that stretch. Not only did Redick make his presence felt offensively but defensively, too. Like in the 2009 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals, Redick was assigned to Ray Allen on defense and able to hold him to four points on 1-of-6 shooting. Yes, Redick can defend and he proved it again when tasked with chasing Allen around screens for most of the night.
As for the game itself, it was a physical affair. It was clear that both teams wanted to win badly and the sense of urgency showed on the court.
Paul Pierce played like a man possessed in the first half, scoring at will and piling up 22 points. And even though Orlando was able to keep Pierce in check during the second half, Rajon Rondo emerged in the third and fourth quarters. However, it can’t be understated how important Howard’s presence on defense is because when Marcin Gortat was in the game, Rondo did whatever he wanted offensively. Clearly not deterred, Rondo attacked the basket many times against Gortat and scored. When Howard was in the game, Rondo was forced to operate around the perimeter but it didn’t seem to matter, as he was able to make a few jumpers at crucial junctures of the game. There were times, though, when Rondo was able to get out in transition and score when Howard was trailing him. Needless to say, Rondo is a smart player.
The game was a fight but unfortunately for the Magic, they undermined themselves in the closing moments of the fourth quarter.
First, with Orlando trailing by the score of 95-92 and 34 seconds remaining in the game, they had the ball and the choice of opting for a quick three-pointer or two-pointer. The Magic elected to go for the latter and honestly, things couldn’t have fared much better than they did for them. Carter ran a 2/5 pick and roll with Howard, put up a shot after he dribble penetrated into the lane, and drew the sixth foul on Pierce. This was about as perfect as it got for Orlando because the clock stopped, Pierce fouled out (thus taking out Boston’s primary go-to option with the game in the balance), and Carter earned a trip to the free-throw line.
Unfortunately for Carter, he missed both free-throws and the Magic were still down by three.
Second, with Orlando still trailing by the score of 95-92 and 30 seconds remaining in the game, they were forced to stop Boston one more time to try to give themselves a chance to try to tie the game. With the shot clock winding down, Kevin Garnett missed his shot attempt and Redick secured the rebound but didn’t call a timeout right away as he was instructed to do by head coach Stan Van Gundy. Instead, Redick dribbled up the court before reaching half-court, then called a timeout. It was a bad play by Redick because not only did he waste precious time but it was the Magic’s last timeout. As a result, Orlando was forced to inbound the ball where Redick last had it rather than have the opportunity to advance the ball to the front-court if a timeout was immediately called after the rebound was secured.
As such, Nelson was forced to put up a desperation heave from three and that was that.
Game over and, barring a comeback on the road, series over for the Magic.
Make no mistake, the Celtics are the better team.