- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- Staggered.
It describes the picks the Orlando Magic set in order to spring Jameer Nelson in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, but it's also a good adjective to describe Rajon Rondo and the Boston Celtics after Monday's loss prolonged this best-of-seven series.
The Celtics had done a phenomenal job defending the pick-and-roll through the first three games of the series, but the Magic added a layer Monday by often having a second screener waiting for Rondo after Nelson ran the initial pick-and-roll with Dwight Howard.
That left Rondo, who Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after the game had already complained of fatigue early on, running into wall after wall. With little more than a minute remaining in the first half, Rondo retreated to the locker room with strength and conditioning coach Bryan Doo with what the team dubbed muscle spasms.
The numbers tell the story. Through the first three games of the series, the Magic averaged 33 plays per game out of the pick-and-roll and generated an average of 28 points per game that way while shooting 35.6 percent from the floor. According to the magicians at ESPN's Stats & Information, in Monday's Game 4, Orlando ran 43 pick-and-roll plays, generating 47 points on 51.6 percent shooting.
What's more, Nelson, who had been 8-of-22 shooting as the primary ball handler in the pick-and-roll through three games, finished 6-for-10 overall Monday. And even when he wasn't creating shots for himself off the picks, Nelson was generating offense by distributing as the defense collapsed on him.
Priority No. 1 for the Celtics in Game 5 has to be defending the pick-and-roll better and not allowing Nelson to create so much havoc.
"I thought he was a little more aggressive than he was," Celtics captain Paul Pierce said of Nelson. "You could see he was kind of forcing the issue in the pick-and-roll, trying to open things up for his teammates and himself. They're a better team when he does that, when he's aggressive and scoring 20 points a game. We gotta do a better job controlling the pick-and-roll, controlling him getting to the rim and finding guys like we did in the first three games."
And Pierce is well aware of the effect of the staggered picks.
"They ran double pick on the strong side," he explained. "We really didn't do a good job on that. We didn't see it coming, but once we saw it, we didn't do a good job of coming in and sinking on the big man. We either fouled somebody or they scored it every time down. It's an adjustment we're gonna have to make in practice and see if we can do better."
Rivers noted that it's not just on Rondo to fight through the screens but rather requires a team effort to deny the play.
"They do it every game, that's nothing new," Rivers said. "We've done a pretty good job up until [Monday]. It's not just Rondo, though. He has to fight through them better and get into the body better. But our bigs have to show better."
Rondo, who brushed off injury talk, said he simply played poorly at both ends of the floor and noted, "I have to do a better job of getting under the picks."
Nelson's ability to get into the lane didn't aid only his own outburst. Considering that Howard was 3-for-3 on field goals generated off the pick-and-roll, it's clear Boston's need to help with its bigs allowed easy buckets for Howard around the rim.
So although stopping the pick-and-roll and dribble penetration in general are top priorities for Boston, here are some other thoughts on what the Celtics need to do to prevent the Magic from making a return trip to Boston later this week:
It's a bird, it's a plane After holding Howard to a total of five dunks through the first three games of this series, the Celtics allowed Superman to generate seven (seven!?!?) dunks in Monday's game.
That's 14 points off the easiest of buckets. He made a lot of them look spectacular, particularly when spiking through any of his four alley-oops, most off lobs from Nelson.
Looking at Howard's breakdown on field goals, it's easy to see what Boston must do to limit him (though decidedly more difficult to actually do it on the court).
Howard finished 6-of-6 overall off pick-and-rolls and offensive rebounds (with two of his putbacks coming in the extra session). But on post-ups, he was at least capable of missing, connecting on only 5 of 9 shots overall (he was also 2-of-4 on cuts), according to ESPN Stats & Information analysis.
The Celtics need to do a better job of keeping Howard away from the basket and forcing him to pass the ball back to the perimeter. One telling stat from his line Monday: 0 assists. Unless Orlando made the hockey pass to set up an open shooter, Howard wasn't generating immediate points by kicking it out.
Rotations, rotations, rotations: Boston seemed to be in perpetual scramble mode, thanks in large part to dribble penetration that forced the bigs to help. Although the Celtics certainly seemed to tighten that up in the second half, it allowed the Magic to generate early 3s and build some confidence.
Even more than the offensive struggles, Pierce suggested that the Celtics needed to refocus on what got them this far.
"Even though we struggled to get some momentum offensively, we still didn't play any defense down the stretch," Pierce said. "We gave them a 3, offensive rebounds, and sent them to the line there in the fourth quarter and overtime. Those type of things hurt when you're trying to come back. But we made our bed, we gotta lay in it and move on."
Don't try to be a hero: We detailed the premise of hero ball after Monday's game, and the Celtics absolutely must get back to balanced scoring with a focus on moving the ball to generate the best look regardless of the player.
"We fall into that at times," Rivers said. "I thought everybody wanted to win the game. I thought everybody showed up to win the game. But I think at times when you have a chance to do something, close a series out or win a big game, each guy tries to do it themselves. I didn't think we trusted each other [Monday] at all with the pass or with the execution. It happens."
The Celtics did tie an NBA record by not having a repeat leading scorer in back-to-back games through the first 15 contests of the 2010 postseason. That ties the mark set by the Seattle SuperSonics in 1978.
Clearly, Boston thrives when a team doesn't know whether it's going to be Pierce, Garnett, Allen, Rondo or even Glen Davis leading the team in scoring (as Big Baby did in Game 3).
Don't panic: More than anything, the Celtics must remember they still own a commanding 3-1 lead, even with two of the next three potential games being played on the road. The Celtics already proved they can win in Orlando and needn't arrive in the Magic's kingdom with any doubt as to whether they can close it out on the road.
"There's no need to panic," said Ray Allen. "We like the position we're in. It's just always a lesson, in humility. As a team, as individuals, you never get too big for the situation. We're in a great position, like I said. So we have to take care of the small things, and they'll add up to what we ultimately want."
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
10hMatt Walks, ESPN.com