- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- One of my favorite moments covering the NBA came back in the 1980s at the old Boston Garden. The very, very good Boston Celtics hosted the very, very bad Utah Jazz. The Celtics won, handily. And as he came out of the locker room to address the media after the game, Jazz coach Frank Layden said, "What? You expected us to win?"
I reference that anecdote after the Celtics blew an opportunity to eliminate the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference finals, denying them at least a week's rest in the process. The Magic, trailing 3-0 in the series and coming off one of the more humiliating and lame efforts in their playoff history, rose up and took Game 4, in Boston, 96-92, in overtime.
What, you expected the Celtics to sweep?
Well, actually, yeah, we did. Who didn't, especially after the Magic put a 44-cent stamp on critical Game 3 on Saturday night? This hadn't even been a series in the first three games, with the Celtics winning twice in Orlando, then returning home to rout the Magic in Game 3.
In the first three games of the series, the Magic had led for a little more than 4 minutes -- total. In two of the games, they had not led at all. The Magic's biggest lead of the series had been three points. In three games, the Magic had had a lead in the fourth quarter for all of 50 seconds, and in the second half for all of 67 seconds. To say this thing was a tad one-sided was to state the obvious.
And, one presumed, if the Magic couldn't summon the necessary fortitude to win Game 2 at home, then laid a brontosaurus egg in Game 3, what were the chances that we'd see the 59-win, regular-season, menacing Magic team in Game 4 as the Celtics were ready to go for the jugular?
Well, we did. Finally. And now the question must be asked: Have we seen the worst the Magic have to offer and is this going to be an honest-to-goodness series?
"A lot of times, people say, 'You can't think about winning the series. You have to win one game,'" Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "I've never really bought into that. If you don't believe you're going to win the series, then it's just too easy to let go. Yeah, you've got to play it one game at a time. But you have to have a belief somewhere that you can win the series. Otherwise, there's just not enough to sustain you and to keep you going in a game."
The Magic are trying to do what no NBA team has ever done. Until last year, no NBA team had ever beaten the Celtics in a playoff series when Boston led 3-2. Van Gundy's Magic then pulled it off. I can remember him saying that some team, some time, was going to do it and it might as well be Orlando and 2009. And it was.
He only needed two wins last year. He needs four this time around. That's a much harder task.
And before we start putting Doc Rivers and Claude Julien in the same sentence, let's also recognize that as good as Orlando played -- "It's the first time, I think, in the series we've actually made it tough on them," Van Gundy said -- the Celtics (a) had the ball at the end of regulation with a chance to win the game and (b) had numerous chances in overtime before, basically, throwing it away. They were sloppy. Rajon Rondo played his worst game in a while. And they still had a chance to win and could have won.
So, no need to push the panic button. Yet.
Under any other circumstance, the Celtics would be ecstatic about holding a 3-0 lead on a team that beat them three out of four in the regular season and won nine more games. But this team has never been much for closing out games since it became a legit contender in 2008.
In 2008, the Celtics couldn't close out the Atlanta Hawks or Cleveland Cavaliers until Game 7. They lost a closeout game to the Los Angeles Lakers (Game 5) in the NBA Finals. Last year, they lost a closeout game to the Chicago Bulls (Game 6) and then two closeout games to the Magic. This year, Boston lost a closeout game to the Miami Heat on the road but was quick and ruthless at the first chance to eliminate Cleveland.
But here's the twist. All the aforementioned closeout games, with the exception of Game 7 last year in the conference semis and this year's win over the Cavs, were on the road. And Monday night, the Celtics were at home, where they had lost only once in the postseason (the Game 3 disgrace versus Cleveland.) The Magic looked to one and all like a team ready to go home for the summer. How could one interpret it any other way after the Game 3 fiasco and the overall one-sidedness of the series?
Instead, we got the team that finished with the second-best record in the NBA, a team that showed it wasn't quite ready to pack it in.
"At some point, somebody is going to come from 3-0 down and win a series,'' Van Gundy said. "The only thing I knew for sure was it would start by winning Game 4. I figured that one out."
And now the Celtics have to figure out how to stop this thing from going any further. Before Game 4, the only ones rooting for a return to Orlando were the Magic themselves and JetBlue. Now, the Celtics have to go back to Hooterville once more, ever mindful of what they failed to accomplish.
"The way I look at it now, we got to take one game at a time," Rivers said. "But if they're looking at it, they have two home games and we only have one. We've just made it more difficult for ourselves. But listen, no one said this was going to be easy. We've made it tough now. So that's fine. We just have to get on the plane, go watch film and get ready for the next one."
Hopefully, for their sake, it will be the last one.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.
Don't panic yet, but Celtics' inability to close out Orlando a concern.