By Peter F. Stringer
May 13, 2009
Sometimes, intangibles feel very, um, tangible.
Call it swagger. Call it experience, call it ubuntu, call it championship pride, call it what you will. But after five games against Orlando, it's clear that the Boston Celtics have an edge over the Magic when it comes down to the final minutes of the game. The Celtics have been there before, and they know who can take them where they need to go when it's time to leave.
The Magic, on the other hand, might not have a captain, a navigator or even a compass at this rate. If they're waiting on Superman to rescue them, they may want to check to see if he's locked in the phone booth. And their coach may just have a mutiny on his hands.
He wasn't having a great night, but once again Ray Allen drilled a clutch shot to put the C's ahead.Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty
Other than that, there isn't much separating the undermanned Boston Celtics from the upstart Orlando Magic. The difference is clear: Rivers has a couple of aces in the proverbial hole when its time to show his hand. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen both want the ball at the end of the game, Rivers wants them to get it, and their teammates want to give it to them.
Without Jameer Nelson, the Magic are something of a rudderless ship on offense. Rafer Alston has failed to impress, Rashard Lewis is more comfortable turning down shots in the final minutes, and the ball seems more like a hot potato when it comes time for Orlando to execute.
Down 3-2 with Game 6 slated for Thursday, the Good Ship Magic is taking on water, and the tide has turned in favor of the Celtics.
Meanwhile, at the end of the third quarter, Doc Rivers was doing a league-mandated interview with TNT sideline reporter David Aldridge, who implied that Rivers might question a struggling Allen. But Rivers made it clear he wouldn't hesitate to call No. 20.
"I feel great about Ray. He's not making shots, but he's a shot-maker," Rivers told Aldridge at the time. "We're going to keep going to him."
Even if he's 2-for-9 on the night like he was Tuesday before he delivered in the clutch again, Allen believes his next shot is going in, and that confidence is pretty damn contagious. When Allen gets the ball late in the game, everyone else is thinking the same thing. Despite coming into the game averaging just 12.8 PPG and shooting just 34% for the series, Allen had ratcheted up his game in other areas this round, grabbing almost five rebounds and handing just under four assists per game in the first four tilts of the Conference Semifinals.
Despite his dreadful shooting, Allen's made it clear in countless postgame interviews over the last two years that he always thinks that the next shot is going in. On a night when many asked "What's wrong with Ray?", Allen answered the bell and threw a knockout punch, a three-pointer that completed the comeback and gave the Celtics their first lead of the game since the first quarter.
"Just like any other shot," Allen said of his back-breaking three. "I missed two five-foot shots, and before you know it I was 0-for-3. Every shot I took I felt good. A couple of threes, they went in and out."
Allen seemed to have problems getting open early in the game, and for a while seemed almost completely neutralized. But as long as he still believes in himself, there's no reason to doubt him at this point. And he knows his coach is keeping the faith.
"I have that sense whether I'm having a tough shooting night or a great shooting night, the plays are the same, whether it's for me or for Paul [Pierce]," Allen said. "I shoot too much to worry. It's just a matter of seeing it go through the hoop. They have the confidence in me."
"When that shot comes, I've got to be ready to take it," Allen said.
Rivers knows he's coming back to Allen when the game hangs in the balance. And if not Allen, well, Pierce knows just how to take over a game down the stretch, either by getting himself to the free throw line or nailing midrange fade-aways that are nearly impossible to defend.
Sure, neither of their two remaining superstars have posted big numbers in the series, but the Celtics have a 3-2 lead and a chance to close out the Magic on Thursday because Rivers believes in guys who want the ball with the game on the line and can deliver in the clutch.
"Great shooters, great players, they keep thinking the next shot will go in, and that's Ray. That was Ray tonight," Rivers said.
The Magic, on the other hand, don't seem to have any idea where they want to go with the rock in crunch time. Heck, they don't seem to want the ball at all at the end of the game, period. Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy watched his team go scoreless over a 5:30 stretch while the Celtics ran off 13 unanswered points to dismantle an 85-75 lead while Van Gundy players simply watched the clock, hoping it would expire and waiting to exhale.
Van Gundy couldn't explain his team's lackluster effort on the offensive end down the stretch, suggesting only that they tried to sit on their lead.
"We look like we were trying to run the clock out... walking the ball up the floor, playing half court," Van Gundy said of the final few minutes of the fourth quarter of which fatigue may have played a roll.
Fatigue has a starring role in the Celtics' postseason production this Spring. Rivers has a tired, shorthanded team that is fighting to defend its title.
But finger-pointing was the name of the game for the Magic. Whether it was Van Gundy trying to implicate home town officiating (he repeatedly noted that his team couldn't expect to get calls against the Celtics in Boston), walking the line between lobbying and making a donation to the league's coffers, or Howard questioning his coach's tactical maneuvers, the Magic seem to be unraveling.
Howard, who looked decidedly pedestrian in the fourth quarter, failed to score inside down the stretch but didn't like his team's substitution patterns.
"We moved the ball, we ran, got easy shots, and our coach has to recognize when he has a certain group out there and they are getting the job done and we have to leave those guys on the floor," Howard said. "We are going to make mistakes but I think you have to go with what works."
Howard, who was 5-for-10 from the floor for 12 points, then complained in the third person about their "post player" only getting 10 shots.
Ubuntu, anyone? What's that about loose lips and sinking ships?
Quite the opposite, Rivers covered for his guys. On the podium Tuesday night, he went out of his way to point out that his undermanned team is all but running on fumes. He knows his team HAS to win Game 6 in Orlando to close out this series, just so they can get a little rest.
The unspoken message? They might not physically last through a Game 7 if it gets that far.
"We're just -- we're really grinding here. I don't know if people appreciate what these guys are doing with the minutes and the legs. But I really do," he said. "But I also know that we've got to get wins. There's only so long you can go, if you know what I mean."
We'll have to wait and see if the Magic are truly wilting in the spotlight, but given Howard's comments and Anthony Johnson's sideline antics earlier in the series, Van Gundy is starting to look like Captain Queeq. He might have a mutiny on his hands.
The Celtics can sink their battleship with a win on Thursday.