The night Orlando's season fell apart
I missed the second half of Tuesday's Magic-Celtics game because I had to attend a dinner event for my daughter's school. There are two choices for such a conundrum:
1. Ignore your Blackberry completely, fight off following any road that might lead you to finding out the score, avoid any televisions, avoid anyone else who's looking at a Blackberry. Sounds great on paper. Never actually works. There's always someone who screws it up.
2. Ignore your Blackberry as much as you can, furtively check it every few minutes, and whenever your wife catches you, explain, "I just wanted to make sure the babysitter didn't text us." This definitely doesn't work, and if anything, it might make your wife angry.
I went for option No. 1, which, again, never works. I don't know anyone who's ever pulled it off except my friend Hench, who can hear someone 75 feet away say, "Did you catch a score?" and quickly throw his hands up like someone who just had a bad call go against him, then start screaming, "I'm TiVo-ing! I'm TiVo-ing! I'm TiVo-ing!" and effectively frighten everyone in the room away from bringing up sports for the rest of the night. I'm not wired that way. Within 35 minutes, I had ESPN's GameCast on auto-refresh (did you enjoy the shameless plug?) and was in furtive-glance mode.
But here's where it's good to be me. See, I write about sports for a living. That's almost like a get-out-of-jail-free card. Either someone will know what I do (and expect me to be looking at my Blackberry), or someone will find out what I do and the Blackberry-glancing instantly becomes OK. He writes a sports column, he needs to know the score. (Actually, I really don't NEED to know the score. It's not like something crazy could happen in the game and I would have to say, "Everyone, I have to go -- Pierce made a game-winning shot, I have to write about it in 45 minutes or I'm going to get fired.") That allows me to gently break a social rule or two without any real consequences. You know, like eating dinner at a sit-down party with my fork in one hand and my Blackberry in the other.
Still, you can't milk it. You have to pick your spots. Which is why I love my son (aka the CEO) for what happened Tuesday night. Midway through the third quarter, our babysitter texted that the CEO had just thrown up "Exorcist"-style all over our TV room. We weren't shocked because there's a throw-up virus going around the preschools right now -- by the way, throw-up viruses are reason No. 493 not to have kids -- so we quickly made an "If he throws up again, we'll have to leave" decision. This allowed me to check my Blackberry more frequently than usual. Every time it buzzed with a text, I had to glance at it pretending it was the babysitter but knowing it was really going to be my father with something like, "Rasheed Wallace just sucks" or "How did we blow the lead that fast??????"
I'd like to think my son threw me a solid. Or, I should say, hurled me a solid. Now I'm thinking about making sure he throws up every time we go out during a big game. (Some day, he will understand.) So that's how I watched the Celtics pull out Game 2 -- on auto-refresh, with texts from my father and friends, and the whole time I was pulling off a dinner party conversation. But I didn't get to WATCH it.
So just for the hell of it, let's retro-diary the second half -- the night that Orlando's season fell apart and we inched significantly closer to Celtics-Lakers XI: This Time It's For Blood.
10:20 remaining, third quarter (tied at 55): Missed three by Vince Carter, long rebound to Paul Pierce ... and Dwight Howard stupidly swipes at the ball for his fourth foul. We're about 25 more of those away from Stan Van Gundy just keeling over like Tommy Boy's dad during the wedding dance scene.
9:30: KG shows a high screen for Rajon Rondo, who jumps the gun, zooms by Jameer Nelson and Marcin Gortat and gets an easy layup. (Tied at 59.) In last year's series, Orlando had distinct advantages at forward (Boston couldn't cover both Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis without KG) and center (once Kendrick Perkins got into foul trouble, Boston had nobody to defend Howard); also, Rondo wasn't consistently great enough yet to turn point guard into a decided checkmark for Boston. Now? The forwards are a wash; Wallace gives Boston 12 fouls to use on Howard instead of six; and Rondo has evolved into one of the 10 best players in the league. Three battles swung completely. And that's before we get to Lewis retiring before the playoffs.
(What? He didn't retire? Are we sure?)
8:22: Rondo (17 points, five assists so far) pulls off what can only be called "The Rondo" (drive into the lane, flip your right hand out like you're passing, cup the ball, keep it, make a running layup). Let the record show that Deron Williams kept the "Best Point Guard Alive" belt for about as long as the Iron Sheik kept the WWF title between Bob Backlund and Hulk Hogan. In a choose-up game, you're taking any other point guard before Rondo right now? Please.
7:15: After Garnett's jumper puts Boston up by five, Vince Carter (12 points, 3-for-10 shooting so far) explicably collapses while running down the floor. (I say explicably because it's always explicable when Vince Carter decides to fall down in a heap. It's not like anyone would ever say, "My God, what just happened! Vince Carter fell down!") I had 5:37 of the third quarter in ESPN.com's "When will Vince be writhing on the floor in pain?" office pool. Did I win? Dammit! David Thorpe was closer. He had 6:38. So close.
7:15: Vince continues to writhe in pain.
7:15: Still writhing.
7:15: Vince heroically stands up, then bends over trying to regroup. Who's getting a bigger kick out of this -- Raptors fans or Nets fans?
(Now here's where you say, "Wait a second, don't you root for Paul Pierce?" Here's my comeback: 2008 Finals MVP; came back three weeks after nearly getting stabbed to death; made a buzzer-beater in the same game in which he had his front two teeth knocked out. So there.)
6:50: Jeff Van Gundy praises brother Stan for putting Howard back in the game with four fouls. I agree: Down five, nobody else scoring, season on the line ... gotta do it. And if Howard's not smart enough to tweak his game with four fouls, you don't deserve to win the title, anyway.
5:59: Down six, Vince heroically returns to the game (Mike Breen: "Sigh of relief from the Magic fans") while of course massaging his left wrist to remind everyone that, "Hey, if I suck for the rest of this game, just remember, I'm hurt." This is why he's Vince Carter.
(Note: This is why ESPN could never make me the third announcer of a three-man NBA booth, even though I'd be absolutely fantastic and a hero to Richard Deitsch, Richard Sandomir, Neil Best and even that lovable crank Phil Mushnick ... I just wouldn't be able to hold my tongue in spots like this. If Breen said, "Sigh of relief from the Magic fans," I'd HAVE to retort, "Sigh of relief? You really thought he was hurt, Breenie? He's Vince Carter! You can't possibly think he was really hurt!!!!! Have you not WATCHED Vince Carter????")
5:05: On consecutive possessions, Glen Davis stops Howard on a low-post move with no help, then takes a charge from Nelson. Celtics by eight. And by the way, no matter how this series plays out, we now know the blueprint for beating the 2009-10 Magic: defend Howard one-on-one (and use your fouls on him), stay home on the 3-point shooters and dare their perimeter guys to beat people off the dribble.
4:50: KG fakes a jumper, then drives down the paint untouched for a dunk. (Kudos to Lewis for somehow avoiding a hard foul or a charge and doing the "Ole!" routine.) "And there's the difference right now," Van Gundy says. "Big Baby Davis puts his body in front, Garnett from 21 feet drives it, Magic get out of the way. No hard foul, no charge, and right now they're teetering on the brink." Exactly. Boston 70, Orlando 60.
4:06: Howard posts up, executes a nice spin move and gets fouled as Mark Jackson repeats his "You're not gonna beat the Celtics by posting up Dwight Howard" routine. Couldn't agree more. But if you're Orlando, what's Plan B? It's like Sean Grande said on my podcast last week: "Cleveland and Orlando spent the past year building teams that could beat each other." They forgot about the 2008 champs. And frankly, so did I. Gotta love sports. You just never know.
3:15: Jameer Nelson sinks a 3-pointer (Orlando's first field goal in six-plus minutes) to cut it to seven. Doc Rivers quickly calls a preemptive timeout before the crowd gets going. Smart. Once upon a time, the Doc that drove me crazy never stuck to a rotation and always called timeouts about three plays too late. Now? He sticks to a rotation and doesn't call timeouts three plays too late anymore. Maybe he finally passed the 10,000-hour Coaching Outlier point.
3:15: Joke I would have made if I were writing this diary in real time: "Could somebody go to Google Maps and print out directions to the Eastern Conference finals for Rashard Lewis?"
2:36: Pierce beats Vince off the dribble, upfakes him and draws Vince's fourth foul. That's been a mismatch all night. I'd like to thank Stan Van Gundy for avoiding his best lineup for this particular series: Nelson, J.J. Redick (who does a nice job following Ray Allen through screens), Lewis (whose length would bother Pierce defensively), Gortat and Howard (for a little Twin Towers action). Those are Orlando's best five guys. We haven't seen them play together once.
(Wait, why am I putting this in print? Um ... more Vince! You gotta get him the rock more, Stan!)
2:36: As Pierce makes his second free throw (Boston by nine), Jackson mentions again that Orlando can't beat Boston by posting up Howard, then suggests they use him on high screens (like the Magic did against the Cavs last spring) to open the floor for him. Good point. By the way, every good Jackson point should be accompanied by the graphic, "FYI: He's available for a 2010-11 coaching job! For further information, please call Steve Kauffman of Kauffman Sports Management."
2:35: Rasheed just re-entered the game. His plus-minus was minus-65 in the first half. I know that sounds impossible, but it's true. He couldn't have played worse. Total opposite of how Game 1 went.
(By the way, Rasheed, just a word of advice: Even if Boston beats Orlando partly because Dwight Howard brings the best out of you, you really can't brag about how Boston got you for the playoffs and the regular season doesn't matter. You know why? Because of the thousands of season-ticket holders who paid to watch you jog from 3-point line to 3-point line for six months. Unless you want to give them a refund. And I doubt it. Anyway, you didn't try, you didn't care, we can all agree ... but don't be so damned happy about it.)
2:00: Van Gundy calls Lewis "disengaged." At this point in the game, Lewis has scored eight points in Games 1 and 2 ... combined. What's worse than disengaged? Unengaged? Misengaged? Degaged? Ungaged? Anti-gaged? Comatose? Dead? Whatever's worse, that's Lewis. One bright spot: During Game 2, my father mistakenly referred to Lewis as "Rasheed" for a record-setting 2,500th time. An emotional moment for everyone.
(Note to Lewis: It's only going to get worse when the series shifts back to Boston. Let's just say your 10-game suspension may inspire a tweet or two at twitter.com/celticschants this weekend.)
1:02: Spinning, herky-jerky, foul-line jumper from Pierce (26 points so far). Too easy. Celtics by nine. Lewis answers with a 3. Big Baby answers by finishing a pretty pass by Pierce. Howard (23 points so far) hits two free throws. Rondo hits an end-of-the-quarter jumper. End of the third: Boston 78, Orlando 70.
The big retro-question: Is Orlando tough enough to flip this series around? Isn't it interesting that this year's happy-go-lucky playoff teams -- Cleveland and Orlando, both known for having fun in pregame warm-ups, organizing funky dances and laughing/strutting with big leads -- suddenly got that collective deer-in-the-headlights look as soon as someone punched them in the collective mouth? If anything stood out over Boston's past eight games, it's been the Celtics' icy professionalism; they just keep coming and coming. Not many chest bumps, very few smiles, just a locked-in group of guys. Even in 2008 (when they won it all), they weren't locked in like this -- they've played 13 playoff games so far and stunk in only one of them.
Look, I love chemistry as much as the next guy, but if we've learned anything this spring, it's that the "look how much fun we're having!" routine doesn't fly in May and June. At some point, you have to suck it up, stay focused, bang bodies and make plays. Cleveland couldn't do it last round; Orlando hasn't done it through seven quarters of this round. And now ... we're here.
12:00 remaining fourth quarter: Stan Van Gundy tells Doris Burke sadly, "We can't stop 'em. We haven't held them under 25 in one quarter, we can't stop them." If I were Doris, I would have responded, "Don't worry, Stan -- this 2010 Celtics team loves building a lead for three quarters, then blowing that same lead in the fourth. You will have a chance to win this game. Keep your head up."
(Sad moment: I didn't realize until I was proof-reading this piece that I wrote the entire thing without once comparing Stan to Ron Jeremy or making a joke about his clothes. It's like the end of an era. We've known him so long now that he's like an uncle with a bad toupee that we see for two holidays a year, only it's been so many holidays now that we forget how funny the toupee is. Again, a sad day.)
11:39: Sheed drains a corner 3. I always liked him! Celtics by 11.
10:48: After a Jason Williams 3, Mike Breen keeps his "Oh, Tony Allen, nice move ... can't finish!" playoff streak alive at 37 straight games. Nineteen away from DiMaggio. (The best part about it -- Breen is always surprised when Tony misses the layup. Always kills me.) That's followed by a Mickael Pietrus jumper, then Rondo answering with a slithery scoop shot and Van Gundy pointing out that the older 2010 Celtics are suddenly every bit as good as the younger 2008 Celtics just because Rondo is so much better now. Two plays later, Rondo forces a steal, then makes a pretty reverse layup in traffic. Celtics by eight.
A few seconds later, there's a TV timeout and we see Pierce and Rondo walking toward the bench ... with Pierce's arm draped around Rondo's shoulder like a big brother. That's been the biggest change this season. It took the veterans six solid months to accept that (A) this was now Rondo's team, and (B) they were along for the ride. They fought it, bitched at him, bullied him, resented him, griped about him behind the scenes ... then the playoffs rolled around and everything fell into place. And really, that's the way it had to be. Pierce, Allen and Garnett can't bring it every night. The Celtics can always get a big game from one of them, and if they get two of them going, they're unstoppable. But Rondo is the constant. It's his team now. If you want to go deeper, one reason they struggle down the stretch is because Rondo (a poor free throw shooter) doesn't want to get fouled, so he plays the last four minutes a little differently than the first 44. Hasn't been a problem in the postseason. Yet.
9:54: But seriously, how great would it have been if Tiger showed up for Game 2 and sat courtside ... only he brought a porn star like Sasha Grey or Joslyn James with him, then the camera kept showing them alternately cheering and mauling each other during the game as ESPN's announcers struggled for things to say? Would that have been the best sports moment of the year, or would you still go with the Super Bowl or the Duke-Butler game? I'm torn.
6:57: Just finished this sequence: Howard sinks a jump hook; Perkins fouls out on the 15,000th moving screen of his career (dubious call); Howard makes a second jump hook; Rondo turnover; Redick draws a foul and makes both freebies; Boston by ... two??? That was fast. By the way, where did this Orlando crowd come from? There are 16,000 people at this game? Since when???
(Retro-note: During dinner, I remember refreshing my Blackberry, seeing the score jump from 85-77 to 85-83, then thinking for two seconds, "Should I lie to my wife and tell her that the CEO threw up again and we have to rush home?" before thinking better of it.)
3:36: After Carter and Baby trade baskets, we have an ugly sequence of plays: missed Howard jump hook; missed KG 18-footer; bricked Vince 16-footer; one of two free throws from Howard; missed Allen 3; missed Lewis 3; Howard offensive rebound, foul and two free throws; Rondo traveling violation; Vince made 20-footer. Timeout, Boston. Orlando by one.
"And if you're Vince Carter," Jackson says, narrating over the replay of Carter's last basket, "This is why they brought you to Orlando."
(The flip side of that quote: You're Vince Carter. We'll get to the meaning of that in a second.)
3:36: Text from my dad during this timeout: "Magic up by 1 -- bad last 3 minutes again." I'm just proud that my 62-year-old father can text me with crucial updates during basketball games.
3:07: After a Celtics miss (good D by Orlando), the Magic clear out for Vince, who goes left, thinks about going to the rim, decides against it and settles for an awful fadeaway 10-footer. "Gotta keep going to the rim, don't shoot the step-back!" Van Gundy gripes. (This goes back to the whole, "If you knock down Vince a few times, he'll stop going to the rim and settle for jumpers" argument that I've been making all playoffs. That's his career in a nutshell. He doesn't want to get hit.) Garnett answers with a pretty fadeaway, Davis draws a charge from Redick on a floater (terrible call); Pierce misses a jumper (offensive rebound, Garnett); Rondo (25 points) drains a tough 16-footer. Celtics by three, 1:33 to go.
OK, stop it here.
This is the moment we've wondered about since last summer with the post-Turkoglu Magic: Down three, season effectively on the line, less than two minutes remaining ... where do they go? Last year, they would have run a high screen with Hedo and Howard.
This year? Let's see.
1:21: Our answer? A hurried 3-pointer by Nelson with 12 seconds left on the shot clock.
-- Jackson: "I don't like that shot at all."
-- Van Gundy (barely hiding his disgust): "No, that's a contested 3 early in the clock ... "
-- Simmons: "I told you!"
1:02: Rondo just misses icing the game when his patented hesitation/scoop layup move misses by a quarter-inch. Nelson answers with a transition layup. (Boston by one.) Pierce works the clock down, does the herky-jerky, foul-line routine and draws a foul. Two free throws. Makes 'em both. Boston by three, 34.7 seconds left, timeout. Orlando needs to go 2-for-1, which means Vince (5-for-15 so far) needs to create a shot quickly. That's why they brought him here. Right now.
0:34: Closeup of Vince walking back out onto the court as Breen sets the stage: "Vince Carter, an eight-time All-Star, all-NBA player, this is first conference finals that he's played in ... and these are the moments we said that he was acquired for ..."
0:31: Great play call by Orlando, forcing Boston to switch off a double-screen so Davis is defending Vince atop the key. Vince beats him off the dribble, barrels into Pierce and forces Pierce's sixth foul. Couldn't have worked out better. You know, assuming he makes these free throws. Which he should: 80 percent career, 84 percent this season, 82 percent in the playoffs.
0:31: Front of the rim ... off.
0:31: Closeup of Vince with a vacant look as every Magic fan gets Nick Anderson flashbacks.
0:31: Back rim, clang.
Rebound, Davis. Timeout, Boston. Vince walks back to the bench with his head down.
Quick tangent: This was one of my greatest Blackberry moments ever. I refreshed it at 34 seconds, then saw three seconds elapsed but it was now Boston ball, then noticed ...
0:31: Vince Carter missed 1 of 2 free throws.
0:31: Vince Carter missed 2 of 2 free throws.
... and did a silent fist pump. My least favorite NBA player gakking in the biggest moment of the series against my favorite team? I felt like pouring champagne on myself.
0:03: Boston works the shot clock down, gets a good jumper from Garnett ... off. Redick gets the rebound and wastes four seconds dribbling toward midcourt before calling timeout: a double whammy because they lost time and have to inbound from a goofy spot. That leads to ...
0:00: Nelson misses a half-court heave that comes a little too close for any Boston fan's liking. Our final score: Boston 95, Orlando 92.
Put it this way: I don't think Orlando has a chance playing the style it played, with the lineups it used, against this particular Celtics team. Other than Howard's spot, they are worse at every other position. They aren't as tough. They can't rebound better or protect the rim better. They can't catch fire with 3s because Boston won't let them get open looks. They can't really stop Rondo or Pierce. They've lost home-court advantage. They have to come up with something drastic -- and I mean, drastic, as in, "Let's go Sampson/Olajuwon with Howard/Gortat" -- to change what's happening here. And even that probably won't work. Not when the Celtics are locked in like this.
The bigger issue: Faux-urgency, as mentioned in last Friday's column. Charlotte and Atlanta softened this Magic team, boosted their confidence to abnormal heights, made them think they were better than they were. Up 20, they look like world-beaters. Down by three, they look tight. Making them no different than Cleveland, actually.
If you haven't done it before, there will always be five or six moments during a postseason when things look bleak and somebody has to step up and say, "Don't worry, I got this." For the 2008 Celtics, it happened in Game 7 of the Cleveland series (Pierce for most of the game, then P.J. Brown with two huge baskets), Game 5 of the Detroit series (Allen and Garnett), Game 6 of the Detroit series (Pierce), Game 1 of the L.A. series (Pierce turning the tide in what Lakers fans now call the Wheelchair Game, which is funny because this is the same fan base that tries to make everyone else think that Kobe Bryant is basically a triple-amputee right now), Game 4 (Pierce and Allen obliterating the Lakers in the 25-point comeback and ending Sasha Vujacic's career in the process) and Game 6 (when KG and Boston's crowd took care of the rest).
Now, look at the 2010 Magic. We'll give them a pass on Game 1 -- rusty, lethargic, it happens. But Game 2? Howard didn't touch the ball in the final four minutes. Nelson forced that awful 3-pointer with 1:21 left. Vince gakked the two free throws. Lewis had his second scoreless fourth quarter of the series. Who's left? The Celtics showed up for the 2010 Eastern Conference finals on Sunday afternoon. We're still waiting for the Magic.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller "The Book of Basketball." For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.