Thursday, May 27, 2010

Blog on the Road, Boston Style

NBA Eastern Conference Finals Orlando v. Boston, Game 4, May 25, 2010.  Boston leads Series 3-0.
(Note: Sorry for posting this a day late.  Travel yesterday impacted getting it online.)

Being up three games to none in an NBA playoff series isn't all that unusual.  And, if you have been paying any attention to the Boston-Orlando series, you know that teams in that position have won every time.  All 93 to be specific.

What makes this series somewhat unusual is that the team ahead 3-0 has almost always been the team that hosted the first two games of the series.  That is not what happened here, and it's the reason things have gotten a lot more interesting in the space of one day.

Let's forget the specifics of the teams and the match-ups just for a second and think about the psychology of the series and where we are today.  Virtually everyone except the guys in the Celtics locker room was surprised that Boston won both games in Orlando, and they did it in a fashion that was more dominant than their three and four point road victories would suggest.  Their 23 point win at home in Game 3 was a truer measure of the beatdown they had put on the Magic to that point in the series.  John Hollinger of ESPN went so far as to say that Boston had broken the Magic's will.  Only 15 of the 93 series that went three games to none had the team ahead playing Game 4 at home as Boston did Monday night.  Obviously this occurred so few times because to go up three games to none you have to pretty clearly be the better team and one would expect the better team to have the higher seed and the home court advantage.  The Celtics were bucking history and had clearly earned their 3-0 advantage.  Everything was going their way and most expected closure in Game 4.

But here is the problem.  Orlando won Game 4.  Of the fifteen teams previously in the Magic's position, only five were able to even do that.  It was the Magic's turn to buck history as they became the sixth.  Back to the psychology.  Now the advantage and momentum swings to Orlando.  Sure they are still underdogs being down 3-1, but having won in Boston they get to go home for Game 5.  If they are finally able to win one at Amway the pressure on Boston will be extraordinary.  The Celts would be heading home for a Game 6, playing in the same building where co-tenants the Boston Bruins had squandered a 3-0 series lead (and a 3-0 lead in Game 7) to become only the fourth team in American sporting history to blow such an advantage.  They will have lost two games in a row and, by definition, some flaws will have been exposed.  If you were a Boston fan you were really hoping David Stern presented the Eastern Conference trophy on Monday night.  It didn't happen.  Here are some reasons why:

• Rajon Rondo, clearly Boston's best player in the playoffs, was non-existent.  Aside from a brief flurry in the second quarter Rondo lacked his customary explosiveness and seemed hesitant to break down the defense and attack the basket.  He finished with 9 points, 8 assists and 3 rebounds, his quietest effort in this year's playoffs.

UPDATE: It was reported that Rondo had some cramping issues during the game.  Clearly this affected his performance

• Jameer Nelson did have his best game of the series.  Nelson was great running the high screen and role and creating his own shot.  He was effective penetrating off the dribble and finding Dwight Howard for some easy baskets and he hit two threes in overtime to seal the victory, albeit one an off-balance banker that had no business going in.

• Dwight Howard is unstoppable with the ball in the paint.  Kendrick Perkins, Glenn Davis and Rasheed Wallace did a good job of keeping Howard off the low block and forcing him further out to receive entry passes.  However they were much less effective in keeping him off the offensive glass and defending him on screen-and-rolls where Howard did much of his damage.  Superman's missed foul shots, he was 6-14 on the night, helped keep Boston in it down the stretch, but overall he had his most dominant game.

• Boston squandered a clear chance to end the series with ten seconds left in regulation.  The game was tied and Paul Pierce had the ball at the top of the key.  However, Pierce waited and didn't start making his move to the basket until there were five or six seconds remaining.  His first foray into the key was well-defended and then he was rushed and had the ball deflected away and time expired.  Opportunity lost.

And eventually, so was the game.  On to Game 5.
Some notes from my seat on the floor:

• The Boston crowd was into it from the start.  It was a great atmosphere and the scoreboard and music were well-choreographed to the game, not intrusive or annoying as is so often the case.

• Almost on cue, Vince Carter was terrible.  VC has a reputation as being soft and disappearing in big games.  Well-deserved.  Arguments to the contrary now are almost laughable.  Carter was 1-9 from the field with 3 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists in 31 minutes.  A three-two-two line.  I'm going to christen this an "Area Code" line.  Term: Area Code line. Definition: A player making more than $10 million/yr recording single digit points, rebounds and assists while playing more than 30 minutes. (For the record 322 has yet to be issued.)

• J.J. Redick is much better at creating his own shot than I would have imagined.  Yes, Redick is a spot-up shooter first and has some trouble on the defensive end, but he is a solid ball-handler and has a very good sense of how to create enough space to get separation and get his shot away quickly.

• Ray Allen was Boston's best player but Paul Pierce took more than twice as many shots and didn't look for an open teammate on his ill-fated move to the basket in the last seconds.  Pierce has been the Celts goto guy in crunch time the last three years, but the talk shows were killing him after the game for his "ego" and wanting to be the hero.  Not sure what I think about it, seemed a bit quick to crucify.

• Kevin Garnett is clearly still the team's and the crowd's emotional leader.  Everyone in the building was  feeding off Garnett after he got a second half technical and was able to channel his anger into a quick Boston run that saw them take the lead.  Unfortunately, Garnett is no longer able to take over a game as his offensive skills have diminished noticeably.

• Last and maybe most noteworthy, the NBA game is IMPOSSIBLE to referee.  The game is so fast.  The players are so big and quick.  There is contact every time down the floor.  I thought the game was poorly refereed, but I also thought it was evenly refereed.  It really is a thankless and incredibly difficult job, particularly when you have two physical teams bringing the intensity that Boston and Orlando brought on Monday night.

Hopefully I'll have a few pics to share in a bit.

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