It’s four straight wins now for the team from Boston that began the playoffs as a decided underdog and now should be the favorite to win its second championship in three years and 18th overall.
Being the favorite to win isn’t the same as winning, and the Celtics are well aware of that. They just got done eliminating the Cavaliers, who were favored to win it all. And now they’re playing Orlando, which should be favored to advance to the Finals for the second straight year.
It’s not clear yet if the Magic understand that. Until the Eastern Conference finals, Orlando’s cruise through the playoffs was as hair-raising as a Disney cruise through “It’s a Small World.”
Sunday, they finally ran into a team that knows how to play defense and doesn’t know how to panic. Don’t be fooled by that little kerfuffle at the end of Sunday’s four-point Boston win. The score may have been close, but the game wasn’t.
That was settled at the beginning of the third quarter, when Orlando’s altitudinally deficient point guard, Jameer Nelson, decided to take matters into his own hands. He opened the scoring with a trey, then hit a two-pointer and another trey as Boston was hitting just one two-pointer. And just like that, a comfortable nine-point halftime lead was cut to three.
The crowd in Amway Arena, who hadn’t had much to cheer about in this one-sided game since the player introductions, started screaming, certain this was the moment when their heroes would turn the game around and impose their will on the visitors from Boston the same way they had crushed Atlanta and Charlotte.
The exhilaration was short-lived. After a timeout, Kevin Garnett hit a two. Paul Pierce canned a three. The Celtics cranked up the defensive pressure, and before you could say, “Whatever happened to Dwight Howard?” they were up by double-digits.
It was a veteran reaction by a championship team. Nobody panicked. Nobody forced a shot. Nobody committed a stupid foul. The Celtics simply played tight defense and took their shots in the flow of the offense. And when they were open, they hit those shots.
It was a textbook example of how to win a championship, and if the Celtics keep playing this way, that’s what their headed for. As well as the Suns and Lakers are playing in the West, the Celtics are playing better than anyone this spring.
The game was won there, and that rally at the end should bring Orlando no comfort. Even though the Celtics went a long time in the fourth quarter without hitting a field goal, they hit their free throws and their defense kept Orlando from ever tying the game, let alone taking the lead.
Most important, the Celtics showed that they, too, have a super power. It’s the ability to make Superman disappear.
After making LeBron James look merely superhuman instead of extraterrestrial, Howard offered little challenge to the Celtic defenders. They let him shoot the ball just 10 times, and he made only three of them. The rest of the time, Boston employed the hack-a-Howard defense, sending him to the free throw line, where he’s at least as adept as Shaquille O’Neal. The strategy held Howard to 13 points.
Without a significant contribution from Howard, the Celts could afford to watch Vince Carter score 23 and Nelson add 20, totals that were more than matched by Ray Allen’s 25 and Paul Pierce’ 22.
The Magic will take hope from the loss. The players will tell themselves that Howard can play better and they did make the game close at the end.
That will be true, but the Celtics can also play better. Rajon Rondo was barely noticeable for most of the game, and while Kevin Garnett had 11 rebounds, he scored only eight points. And this is their strength. If the Magic try to close down Ray Allen and Pierce, Garnett and Rondo will just take their places.
The Celtics know this. They’ve a veteran crew that’s won a title and knows how it’s done. Their big three don’t care which of them gets the glory as long as the bottom line is a win. Even as they were playing miserably down the stretch, they kept saying that as long as they were healthy, they’d be fine in the playoffs.
They’ve been right through two rounds and are off to a great start in the third. A month ago, few were talking about them as potential champions. That was when everyone knew the Finals were going to LeBron and Kobe.
It may still be Kobe, but the Celtics have ended LeBron’s season — and maybe his Cavaliers career. And in Game 1 of the Eastern finals, they made Superman disappear.
Things still can change, but right now, no one’s playing better.