For an Orlando Magic team that had swept its way through the first two rounds of the playoffs, that had yet to be challenged let alone beaten in a postseason game, and that hadn’t lost on its home floor in just over two months, this was a reminder that playoff basketball wasn’t supposed to be easy.
And now that they’re playing a Celtics team that’s never looked better, it won’t be.
This Celtics team, the one that built a huge lead early and held on for a 92-88 win over the Magic on their home floor in Game 1, is determined to bring the Magic back down to earth. No matter how difficult that might be, Doc Rivers has his guys up to the challenge.
“There was a point in the season, I guess it was when we started the playoffs, when Doc wrote on the board, ‘RESOLVE,'” Ray Allen said after Sunday’s Eastern Conference finals opener. “He said we have to have resolve if we want to go where we want to go.”
Resolve has been the theme of the Celtics’ season. They started off 23-5, reaching that mark with a win Christmas Day over — who else? — the Orlando Magic. They hit a rough patch of injuries (and perhaps a couple chemistry issues as well) after that. They played .500 ball for the second half of the season, battling constantly against media scrutiny that they were too old and too inconsistent.
It took resolve for the Celtics to carry themselves into the playoffs with their heads held high. And it took resolve to withstand heroic performances in the playoffs — first from Dwyane Wade, then from LeBron James — to make it to where they are right now. This is a team that’s kept rolling with the punches, all year long.
“You know, there were stretches in the season where — we know each other so well, we’ve been around each other for a couple of years now — we were becoming less patient with each other,” Allen said. “And when things went awry in any quarter, any game, or we lost a couple of games, we were getting on each other a little bit too much. But we can take it.
“We respected each other, and when we started the playoffs, we said teams are going to hit us, they’re going to attack us, but when somebody scores on us, which they will, we’ve got to get the ball out and take it back down there and score on them. Nobody can hang their heads, and nobody can have bad body language. We’ve done a great job of that. And we always remind ourselves, because you don’t want to regress back to where you were.”
This win in Game 1, in which Allen dropped 25 points and the captain Paul Pierce added 22, is emblematic of the Celtics’ perseverance over the course of this season. The Celtics started strong, hit a rough patch late and powered through.
In the end, the results spoke for themselves. They held Dwight Howard to 3-of-10 field-goal shooting and only 13 points. They made Rashard Lewis a non-factor. They kept Orlando’s vaunted 3-point shooters at bay all day long. The Magic finished 5-of-22 from long range.
This is the kind of defensive effort the Celtics are capable of.
“We had it in us,” Rivers said. “We did it the first 28 games of the year. We were terrific out of the gates defensively, and then we got away from it. I honestly said we lost ourselves during that stretch, and now we’re finding ourselves again.”
They’re making that discovery at the right time. They’ve sent a loud and clear message to the Magic — in this series, they’ll have to work hard on every single possession. No more coasting from here. No more taking playoff wins for granted.
“It’s going to be tough, there’s no question,” Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. “It’s not going to be easy. I don’t care what adjustments we make or what we come up with, it’s a very good, very, very physical defensive team, and it’s not going to be easy. Nothing will come easy in this series.”