Even after a complete and utter annihilation of the Orlando Magic in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, a game that the Celtics dominated early and never looked back, Doc Rivers insisted that this series wasn't over. His team had won the game, yes, but they hadn't broken the Magic's spirits.
"They're going to come back in the next game and they're going to give us their best shot," Rivers said after Saturday night's 94-71 laugher. "They're a competitive group, and we know that. Quite honestly, we're not good enough to let up. I can tell you that. And they're good enough to get it going. And so we have to be very conscious of that."
There you have it. Straight from the coach's mouth — the Celtics have this Magic team down, but not out.
But then you listen to the guy manning the other sideline. He's singing a totally different tune.
"The most disappointing thing to me was that I didn't have our team better ready to play," said Stan Van Gundy, humiliated and crushed after Saturday's loss. "That was what was disappointing to me — my job. That was the most disappointing. It starts with me. It's my job. I'm the coach of this team. It starts with me. I'm not happy with where I had our team tonight, anything about what I did, my plan, any adjustments, anything."
He sounds like a man who's been thoroughly defeated. Outclassed, outwilled, outcoached by Rivers and the Celtics.
This series is a battle of the last two champions in the Eastern Conference. Both teams have proven their mettle in recent memory — the Celtics took down the East and won the NBA Finals in six games two years ago, and the Magic made the finals last spring. There should be no confusion at this stage. Everyone knows what they're playing for.
And yet somehow, inexplicably, the Magic sound lost.
"I just think that right now we've got to find ourselves," Dwight Howard said. "These last three games, we haven't played like Orlando Magic. Seemed like tonight our bodies were here, but our minds weren't. Our hearts seemed like they weren't into it. I don't know what happened."
You could sense all night long that the Magic just didn't have the heart — the "compete level," to borrow a hockey term — to keep up in Game 3. Every loose ball, the Celtics dove for it and the Magic were a step slow. Every rebound, the Celtics were all over it and the Magic barely tried. The playoffs are a test of who can be tougher, who can fight harder. And the Magic got absolutely humiliated in that department.
"All season long, I don't think there's been a game where the other team outplayed us, outhustled us, and just worked harder than us," Howard said. "But they've done that for the last three games. And that's why they're ahead."
This is how bad it got: Early in the fourth quarter, with the Celtics up 30 and a 3-0 series lead for the men in green looking pretty much certain, the fans at the TD Garden broke into a full-on chant of "Beat L.A." with Orlando, statistically the best team left standing and the absolute hottest team in the NBA over the last two months, right there soaking it in.
Fans in Boston can say a lot of nasty stuff, but "Beat L.A.?" That's just offensive.
"A lot of things offend us on the court," Howard said, "but we just have to keep playing. We can't allow that to, like, mess with our heads. Like I said, we know we're in a tough situation, but we've just got to keep fighting. Like I said, I won't give up. You know, my team, we're going to come out with a better effort and just try to make it a series."
Of course they'll try, but with their current mind-set and their defeated attitude, it's hard to imagine them finding much success.