- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
BOSTON -- Before Thursday's Game 6 of his team's Eastern Conference semifinal series, coach Doc Rivers told the Boston Celtics he was headed to Orlando regardless of how the rest of the series played out with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But he was hopeful his charges would be joining him in The City Beautiful.
After dispatching the top-seeded LeBrons in six games, Rivers is indeed heading home to Orlando, but there's plenty of work to accomplish before he can dust off his golf clubs as the Celtics prepare to clash with the Magic in the conference finals.
In order to be successful against the Magic, the Celtics must carry over five things they did well against Cleveland to the next round.
1. The defense can't rest
It's probably not terribly surprising that the Celtics and Magic have been the two best defensive teams in the playoffs, particularly since Orlando has raced through eight consecutive wins, holding opponents to a rather ridiculous 83.8 points per game.
Boston's chore has been decidedly more difficult, matched up against superstar scorers Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in the first two rounds. Even so, the Celtics held the Heat and Cavaliers to 91.7 points per game through 11 contests.
After slipping a bit during the second half of the regular season, Boston has cranked the defensive intensity up a couple of notches in the postseason and has looked downright 2008-like at times.
"They've always been a great defensive team, that's where they hang their hat," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. "They've done a terrific job throughout the course of the series -- they did that in the first round against Miami, too -- and they played great defense against us. The regular season is a lot different than the postseason. We knew they were going to be a different team, and we hoped that we were, and Boston stepped up and we didn't."
While Boston did a good job making the opposing team's superstar work for his points in the first two rounds, much of its success stemmed from keeping the supporting casts quiet. That will be a challenge against Orlando, which has five players averaging double digits in points this postseason, led by point guard Jameer Nelson (20.5 points per game) and shooting guard Vince Carter (16.9). Rashard Lewis (16.4) and Dwight Howard (15.4) are close behind, while Mickael Pietrus adds a kick off the bench.
The key defensively for Boston will be limiting the 3-pointer, which Orlando lives and (rarely, it seems) dies by. The Magic have chucked 232 triples this postseason, second only to Phoenix, which has played two more games.
Boston showed vulnerability to the 3-point shot at times when Quentin Richardson and Wade got hot in Round 1, but Cleveland's inability to sustain a perimeter attack surely contributed to its demise.
Leaning on defense is nothing new for Boston, and don't expect the Celtics to try to invent some sort of elaborate scheme for Round 3. They will simply need their help defense to make crisp rotations and every player must close out on his shooter.
"You know, guys, there's really no secrets," Rivers said. "After Game 1 or 2, you kind of run your stuff. And I thought our guys' effort, our focus, was phenomenal. Everybody was on the same page. And all we talked about throughout the series was, individually, we're not going to beat [the Cavaliers], we can't. But teamwise, together, if we're all on the same page, then we had a chance.
"And I thought, overall, we stayed in that, and that's why we won the series. It was a tough series, I've got to tell you. This was a brutal series. Guarding LeBron James six games is just brutal. It really is -- as tough as I've seen for us. He's just a monster. And I was so proud of our guys because they accepted as a group that not one guy was going to be able to do it, and that the team was going to have to do it."
With the Boston defense often fueling its offense in transition, the Celtics absolutely must keep the intensity cranked on that end of the floor against Orlando.
2. A Ticket to ride
Reflecting on Celtics-Magic matchups from the regular season, a lasting image is Lewis blowing past Kevin Garnett in the final seconds of a come-from-behind victory during Boston's January visit to Amway Arena, but as with the improved defense, this isn't the same Garnett we saw four months ago.
Garnett might have been Boston's MVP in the conference semifinals (only Rajon Rondo could make a case otherwise) and he busted out some vintage Ticket as he absolutely abused Antawn Jamison (and anyone else the Cavs tossed at him in the post).
"It was a tough matchup for us," Brown admitted. "He at different times got some rhythm for them and, if he was not scoring, the attention we had to pay to him when he was in the post allowed them to get some long rebounds or allowed them to get some easy layups off of their cuts. It was a tough matchup for us, so you've got to give them credit, give him credit. He did a heck of a job throughout the series."
The Celtics were adamant about getting Garnett upward of 20 shots per game. In the end, he averaged only 16, but it'll be interesting to see if Boston continues to employ that strategy in Round 3, particularly considering that the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, Howard, is likely to be lurking in Garnett's area.
"[Establishing Garnett] was the key [against Cleveland]," Rivers said. "I thought it going into the series. You know, we didn't know if he could do it as much. The number was 20. We kept talking 20 attempts a night, 20 attempts a night. Just think '20.' And our guys had a count on it. Our guys, you know Rondo, every time something went down, he looked at me and you know our punch play -- he kept throwing the fist for that play.
"Everyone knew what they had to do in that way. Get [Garnett] space, get him room. The great thing about Kevin is, they know he's not going to take a lot of bad shots. Even with the 20 number, he's going to make some good passes, which he did. So I'm really happy for him. He had a good matchup, and he did a great job."
3. Age ain't nothing but a number
Still think the Celtics are too old to compete for a title? The Cavaliers certainly didn't buy into it.
"Not one time in our locker room had we talked about their age or anything like that," Brown said. "It's a good team. Throughout the course of the year, they had guys injured at different times, and it messed with their rhythm. But they're battle-tested and it came out this series. They did a heck of a job against us, you've got to give them credit."
Echoed James: "They've got a lot of veteran players that have been in postseason games, and they all just bought into their system and it's worked for them. I think we had opportunities to win [Game 6], to win the series, but we didn't execute.
"When you don't do that against a very experienced team, against a team that's been around this block more than once, then you can definitely end up on the losing side."
While Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are a year older, they helped push Orlando to seven games last season. And now they have KG back. But two of the most important players on the court are likely to be the 24-year-old Rondo and the 25-year-old Kendrick Perkins.
The Celtics certainly need contributions from Pierce and Allen, but Boston's success might depend on whether Perkins can continue his success against Howard around the basket and how Rondo fares with a healthy Nelson, who sat out last season's series.
4. Balanced output
The Celtics spent the better part of the end of the regular season trying to get Pierce into a rhythm with the idea that they needed him to be their go-to guy on offense in the postseason.
Maybe they don't need him to be that guy after all.
Rondo (18 ppg) leads four Celtics starters averaging double digits this postseason, and all are within a bucket of each other, including Garnett (17.6), Allen (17.4) and Pierce (16.3). This even as Pierce has struggled to get going, particularly during the Cleveland series.
Suddenly Boston seems content with making Pierce a defensive stopper when he needs to be (a role he showed he can fill against James).
"I would say the biggest change that we have through this year is that we are a balanced-scoring basketball team," Rivers said. "We don't rely on one guy anymore; we don't even rely on two or three. We just keep looking for the right place to go. And that's easy for our coaching staff, but very difficult for the players because the players have to want to do that and trust that.
"And they all do it. Paul has no problem if Ray takes 20 shots. And Ray has no problem if it's Kevin. And if Rondo has it, they don't care anymore, and I think that's the biggest change in our team."
It seems as though the "Ubuntu" mentality from the 2008 championship season has returned. The Celtics selfishly want to remain unselfish.
"That's what makes us so strong. When you do your scouting report on us, you have to worry about four, five, six different guys night in and night out," Pierce said. "A lot of the great teams, they have at least one great player, when you look at Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James. So a lot of our scouting report is going to be geared toward the star players and then key in on the other guys.
"I think with us, you can't just key in on one guy. You can say I'm our leading scorer, but you've got four or five other guys that could be our leading scorer and it's not by much. I'm only our leading scorer by like two points [during the regular season] from the second-leading scorer, three points from the third-leading scorer, so it can happen from anybody on any given night. That's what makes us so great, when we move the ball and we have so many people we can rely on."
5. Keeping their eye on the prize
If this were major league baseball, the Celtics might have been popping champagne in the locker room following Thursday's elimination of the Cavaliers.
Or maybe not. The Celtics engaged in a little fist-pumping, maybe a few energetic back bumps on the floor, but by the time the locker room door opened to the media, players were already focused on the next challenge.
"Really I haven't given it thought, I'm really not that proud of this truthfully because our goal was to win a championship," Pierce said of beating the Cavaliers. "We didn't say we wanted to come into this year and beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs; our goal is a championship. We can be excited for one night, winning a game, winning a series, but I don't look at it like this made our season. The only thing that's going to make our season is winning a championship.
"We don't have those types of goals around here where you look at some teams that get moral victories for hanging around in a series or winning a series, not here in Boston. We strive and we get excited when we put that banner up. All I can really say is it was a great series and we won, I know not really anybody expected us to win, especially with the way we played, you guys saw how we were up and down during the year and injuries, a lot of things.
"We could come up with so many different excuses, but at the end of the day, we know we have championship experience, we know what we have in this locker room and there is nothing that is going to take that away from us. We are a proven group of guys and we feel like this is where we want to be."
The Celtics didn't hang a blank banner in their practice facility to write "Eastern Conference finalists" on it. They didn't hang a picture of the Larry O'Brien Trophy near the exit of their locker room to celebrate knocking off the team with the best record in the NBA.
"One thing we don't lack, and that's confidence," Garnett said. "Even when we were playing like crap and trying to get our chemistry problems together in our locker room and all the things that come with the season.
"I thought we hit our stride at the right time. We're a veteran team, we understand that when it's time to lock in as a group, as a unit, I think we did just that. I think if anything, the experience has totally taken over versus anything else.
"We're not celebrating. I think, if anything, that everyone is going to go home and relax with their families, obviously. Get ready for [the Orlando scouting report]. We get these massive books, and you've got to know your coverages and all the schemes that come with it. So [Friday] it's back in the classroom, getting ready."
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.