In a game where they looked exhausted, at least in the first half, from a mentally and physically taxing seven-game (almost eight games including OTs) series with the Bulls, the Celtics nearly overcame a 28-point deficit by turning up the intensity in the fourth quarter for a spirited rally that fell a few turnovers short of fruition.
Paul Pierce knows something about comebacks. He led the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in NBA playoff history back in 2002 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the New Jersey Nets and the Game 4, 24-point comeback vs. the Lakers in the NBA Finals last season that put the C's up 3-1 and in command of the series on their way to the championship.
While he was much more apt to ride the emotional roller coaster back in 2002, famously perched atop the scorer's table after the comeback against the Nets, Pierce has matured into a guy who now never gets too high or too low. Losing that series to the Nets and enduring several years of mediocrity will do that to you.
Rajon Rondo sparked Boston's comeback with his offensive aggressiveness, including this play where he nearly slammed one home over Dwight Howard.Elsa/NBAE/Getty
To that end, Pierce was relatively calm when the Celtics staged their Finals comeback in Los Angeles last year, knowing that they still had to win one more to seal the deal. "I don't want to get overjoyed," Pierce said at the time. "I want to go out there to try and win Game 5 on Father's Day and then I'll be able to breathe. Right now, I'm waiting to exhale."
The Celtics looked as if they still needed to catch their breath from the last series in the first half of this one, falling behind 54-36 at the half and by as many as 28 early in the third. Ray Allen couldn't find the range, Rajon Rondo airmailed a free throw and Pierce seemed a step slow. Only Stephon Marbury, who's struggled since arriving in March, appeared to be on his game, attacking the hoop with schoolyard floaters and giving the Celtics a glimmer of life.
It's worth noting that while it already seems like forever ago, the Celtics lost Game 1 of the Bulls series and people were ready to push the panic button given their shorthanded status. So after an arduous series in the first round, the C's find themselves behind the eight ball again, and they'll be facing the same questions that haunted them over the past two weeks.
If they were tired, Doc Rivers didn't want to hear it and certainly wouldn't accept it, either. Marc Spears from the Boston Globe couldn't even finish the first question of the postgame press conference; as soon as Rivers heard the word "fatigue", he made it clear that those excuses weren't gonna fly.
"There was no fatigue. I don't believe in that. We had a whole day off, we ain't making no excuses. There was no fatigue," Rivers said emphatically after the game. "We played flat, we played with no energy in the first half, but it wasn't the fatigue factor."
Given the furious rally over the last 16 minutes or so, it's hard to argue with Rivers' assessment. Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy even noted, somewhat sarcastically, that teams don't get "less tired" in the second half. "They did not look like in the last 16 minutes that there was much fatigue on their part," Van Gundy noted.
If anything, Van Gundy was the second of two annoyed coaches at the podium, befuddled by the media's fixation of the near comeback (he's not gonna want to read the Internet on Tuesday) and ability to gloss over the facts of the case: the Magic are up 1-0.
"You guys can get into the 'great comeback' but you forget the fact that we were up 28," Van Gundy said, chastising the press as he's wont to do. "You play these games to win and that's it. We won."
While he neglected to mention that his own team got three-pointer happy and all but begged for a Celtics comeback in the fourth, gift-wrapping turnovers and forcing some atrocious shots, Van Gundy admitted that the near-collapse wasn't his team's finest hour.
"They were fantastic in the last 16 minutes and if we don't adjust and play better then we'll have a lot of problems on Wednesday, but right now the series is 1-0," Van Gundy said.
For the Celtics, the adjustment is simple. When the National Anthem winds down, it's time to crank up in Game 2.
"We can't wait until we're down 25, 26 to wake up," Pierce said of his team's mid-game lethargy after crediting Rajon Rondo's energy for turning things around. "It's like a boxing match and you get hit with a hook and an uppercut, and then you're going to decide to fight."
His coach echoed the sentiments, noting that the Celtics failed to get to the free throw line in the first half, a clear sign that his team wasn't going on the offensive.
"When you shoot zero free throws for a half, that means your team is completely unaggressive. We settled for jump shots, we stood around," Rivers said. "The second half we attacked, and that's the difference."
To Van Gundy's point, the comeback's a nice story, but ultimately the Magic have already put the pressure on the Celtics to win in Game 2. Down 1-0, the Celtics need to win two of their next three games to retake the home court advantage over Orlando that they worked so hard to attain in the regular season.
That's one comeback they can't afford to let slip away.