By Jeremy Gottlieb
I don’t know about you, but I feel like tonight should be Game 8.
It seems really hard to grasp that the Celtics’ first-round series against the Bulls is over. By the time the third overtime of Game 6 rolled around, I figured that the two teams would just keep playing each other forever, or at least until someone keeled over. And now, it’s over. Let the withdrawal symptoms begin.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy the Celtics won. I’m ecstatic about it, actually. The fact that they were able to stay on their feet throughout all seven of those games plus all seven of those overtimes and wind up the ones that didn’t get knocked out wassupremely impressive. Both teams were so totally staggered, so banged up and so running on fumes by the time Saturday night rolled around, being the one who gave out first was nothing over which to sulk. They showed tremendous character and fortitude in outlasting the Bulls and should be not only commended, but remembered for it, no matter what happens next.
Which leads us to that very question: what is going to happen next? We know that the Orlando Magic, their monster of a center and their wildly oversensitive head coach will invade the Garden tonight for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. And that’s about it. Just as the last series proved to be impossible to predict (even in the end, when it seemed the Celtics and Bulls couldn’t play without at least one extra period, they finished Game 7 in regulation with barely a sliver of the suspense found in the previous three games), what the Celtics may do against Orlando is a complete mystery.
There are at least a couple of possibilities. They could be completely spent from the energy, both physical and mental, expended against the Bulls. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and Doc Rivers can talk all they want about how playing a ton of minutes doesn’t matter because they’re all basketball players and that’s what they do. Tack on the amount of time played by the Celtics’ starting five to the amount they’ve all played over the course of the season, plus all of last season, when they participated in 26 playoff games, and you have a truckload of minutes. Enough minutes that would add at least a little bit of weight to even the most well-conditioned player’s legs. And on top of that, there’s the emotional toll after a series that featured so many highs and lows that even the most stoic, bloodless guys had to have felt them. The Celtics are exhausted and they may be too gassed to stay with the Magic.
Or, they may be recharged and re-energized. There’s no doubt that the Celts are flying after coming out on top against the Bulls. Even for a team that has been to the heights that the Celts have reached, winning such a battle, especially while playing severely undermanned, has to be totally elating. Now, after showing the kind of heart and resolve on display against Chicago, perhaps they see themselves as world beaters and will play as such. Or maybe they’re just so happy to be rid of the Bulls (especially the hideous Brad Miller andJoakim Noah) that just seeing a different uniform on the other side of the floor will carry them. Who knows?
What is clear, or at least clearer, is that the Celts are going to have to deal with a better, more experienced group. As well as the Bulls played all series long, particularly the duo of Ben Gordon and Derrick Rose, they don’t have anyone who even approaches Orlando’s Dwight Howard. Howard, who on any particular night may well grab 25 rebounds and block seven shots, is an absolute beast, a prototypical center for this era of the pro game. As well as his will to rebound and defend at the highest possible level, he is extremely quick and is able to get around pretty much every big man he faces with ease. He has harnessed that quickness and applied it to his offensive repertoire to the tune of 21 points a game. He can post up or face up and be just as dangerous regardless.
If the Celtics want to win, they may just have to live with giving Howard what he wants. As we all know so well, the Celts’ front line is thin. Kendrick Perkins will have the task of checking Howard and he has to stay out of foul trouble, not just so there will be less need forMikki Moore and Brian Scalabrine on the offensive end but on defense as well, where each of them will be eaten alive before fouling out in 10 minutes. Big Baby Davis had one of his better games of the season against Howard and the Magic, outplaying him on both ends, but that was with KevinGarnett backing him up. Big Baby emerged as a true threat against the Bulls and the Celtics will need all they can get from him in this round, so the less time he has to spend grappling with Howard the better. Howard’s going to get his, so the Celts just have to ensure that everyone else in blue doesn’t.
After Howard, the Magic thin out. Hedo Turkoglu is their next best player, and although he has proven to be somewhat of an assassin at big moments both in these playoffs and before, he’s been playing on a bad wheel that may or may not affect him, particularly when it comes to driving to the basket. The point guard isRafer Alston, a journeyman equally capable of throwing out a great game and a stinker. Rashard Lewis, the team’s highest paid player, was quiet in the Magic’s first-round win over Philly and has appeared to be rather passive in big games. Their starting 2-guard a rookie named Courtney Lee who can really shoot, is out with a fractured sinus. No one on their bench is all that scary, unless you count Duke alum/slow, no-position, long range gunner J.J.Redick scary. Second-year big guy Marcin Gortat, did put up 11 points and 15 boards in place of the suspended Howard in the clincher against the Sixers so given the Celts’ depleted frontcourt, they may need to pay him some mind.
The point is that these are the guys the Celts have to make beat them. Despite Howard’s mammoth presence up front, the Magic are a perimeter-oriented outfit. They shoot three after three after three with a lot of screen and roll up top to freeTurkoglu and Lewis for open looks, as well as a fair amount drive and kick stuff too. There won’t be as much ball movement as the Bulls employed and Orlando doesn’t have nearly the team speed that the Bulls had. Although they will get out and run from time to time, these factors play into the Celts’ hands.Rajon Rondo, who must be considered among the league’s elite point guards after his performance against the Bulls, shouldn’t have too tough a time against Alston, and both Pierce and Allen are likely to be able to operate a little bit more freely against the Magic’s D, which won’t be as quick or aggressive as the Bulls’ was. Orlando probably caught on to the fact that Pierce’s worst moments in the last round were when he was trapped or at least doubled at the three-point line so seeing that approach won’t be surprising. And a more consistent effort from the bench, thin as it is and Eddie House’s perfect Game 7 notwithstanding, would be nice, though saying that is like hoping for rain in the midst of a drought.
So that’s what next. I’m not particularly ready to leave the Bulls series behind just yet (and by the way, as great a series as it was, and man was it amazing, it was not one of the best series of all time for the simple fact that it was just the first round – move it up a couple rounds and we’re onto something) but as gratifying and meaningful as it was, it’s now history. It was one step, even if it felt like 20. And now, another task is at hand. It’s a task the Celts will handle – they take the Magic in six.