If the 92-88 final score was close, the game really wasn't. Despite the Orlando Magic's late-game surge, they never had possession with a chance to tie or go ahead. For sure, their rally might artificially pump them up, but the truth is that the Boston Celtics bullied them from post to pillar and never relinquished their death grip on the outcome.
That said, who is primarily to blame and who gets the lion's share of the credit for Boston's drawing first blood in the series?
Wearing the laurels
Neither Paul Pierce nor Vince Carter could stop one another, but Pierce's game was more efficient. When he and Tony Allen were able to push Carter left, good things happened for the visitors. Namely, two turnovers, a missed 15-footer and an airball that offset the three buckets Carter canned going to his off-hand. And while Carter needed 18 shots to score 23, Pierce registered 22 while only making eight field-goals.
Ray Allen's sharp-shooting from far and near, plus his cold-blooded performance from the stripe, added up to a game-high 25 points. His bonus numbers included seven rebounds, three assists and only one turnover. Allen was rock steady.
Kendrick Perkins' stat sheet -- 2-for-6 shooting, two rebounds, five turnovers, four points -- gave no indication of his defensive presence in the paint. He was able to defend Dwight Howard with no help whatsoever, bodying the ersatz Superman into missing six layups, committing seven turnovers and rendering him virtually invisible on offense. Indeed, Howard was only occasionally two-timed when he was forced to drive baseline.
Rasheed Wallace also took several effective turns at making a non-factor of Howard. If Perkins used brute force, Wallace employed his length, his anticipation born of his experience and his fearlessness in slyly bumping Howard's hips and other arcane pressure spots. Wallace also dropped several important shots.
Although Kevin Garnett missed two layups, only shot 4-for-14 and was clearly intimidated whenever Howard defended him, K.G. did rebound (11), make alert passes (five assists) and showed good range on defense.
For the most part, Rajon Rondo sublimated his own offense and dutifully ran the show.
Tony Allen played his usual quick-handed, ornery defense.
Glen Davis relished the opportunity to keep Howard off-balance by assaulting his lower body.
As ever, Tom Thibodeau's carefully crafted defensive schemes made a huge difference. Because Howard was guarded on a one-to-one basis, the other Celtics defenders were able to tag Orlando's potent perimeter shooters, limiting them to 5-for-22 from beyond the arc. Also, Rondo diligently attempted to go under any screen/rolls offered for Jameer Nelson to use, and when this was impossible, Boston's bigs showed high and wide.
For the Magic, kudos go to Carter, whose one-on-one moves gave his team hope in the closing minutes; and to Nelson as well, for pulling up and shooting instead of trying to force his way to the rim in the face of Boston's screen-and-roll defense. Credit J.J. Redick, too, for being the Magic's most savvy player, thereby enhancing the play of his teammates. Plus, it was Redick who drew two of the four charging fouls registered by Orlando's defense.
Marcin Gortat played smarter defense than Howard, was 3-3 from the field and snatched five rebounds in only 14 minutes of daylight. This guy can play.
Finally, give a round of applause for Orlando's late wakeup call that at least made the Celtics beak into a mild sweat.
Wearing the dunce caps
Doc Rivers made a serious boo-boo when he instructed his players to take the air out of the ball and abandon their aggressive game plan much too soon. The idea was to eat up as much clock as possible in the waning minutes, but being passive isn't in his team's nature. That's why this tactic only resulted in bad shots and costly turnovers.
Rashard Lewis's early defense was admirable -- three steals, two blocks. Too bad his defensive rotations got more ineffective as the game wore on. At times, he also seemed reluctant to shoot the ball -- perhaps because he finished with only six points on 2-of-10 from the field. For the Magic to compete on even terms with the Celtics, Lewis has to show up.
But Orlando's most important miscreant was Howard. On the credit side, he pulled down 12 rebounds, although half of these were accomplished in uncontested situations, and his five blocks were certainly dramatic. However, he was also drawn away from his assigned help positions by the repeated ball penetrations from the Celtics wings. If his offense remains crude (and hasn't significantly evolved since Clifford Ray was replaced by Patrick Ewing), he still doesn't know when it's appropriate to make a full commitment to a penetrator and when to show and recover. In fact, his overall defensive deficiencies were demonstrated by the numerous unguarded layups made by the Celtics.
In addition, Howard earned another major dunce point when he was guarding K.G., who was presumably posting up, but who kept moving farther and farther away from the rim. Even though Garnett was a full 10 feet out, Howard insisted on fronting him, leaving plenty of space for a lob pass to be thrown that was quickly followed by K.G.'s sinking an easy layup.
Howard's putative offense was another horror show--3-for-10, seven turnovers and a harmless 13 points. The bully was himself bullied into a state of utter confusion and frustration.
Discounting Nelson's adjustment to Boston's S/R defense, the only team-wide tweaks Orlando made were to runs isolations for Carter and Nelson. Doing this might have gained some short-term advantages, but without routine ball reversals and weak-side activity, the Magic have no chance of winning the series.
Moreover, the long layoff was no excuse for Orlando's coming out of the gate with such little intensity. The blame for this failing must be shared by the players and their coaches.
But the onus is now on Stan Van Gundy to put on his genius cap. He has two evenings of video work, one full practice session and a game-day shoot-around to find the ways and means to get Orlando's offense and defense back in gear.
For the sake of witnessing a competitive series, here's hoping he succeeds.