When Rajon Rondo dove between Jason Williams’ legs for a
loose ball, ripped it, stood up and finished, the Celtics-Magic series ended with one play.
The Garden erupted, and Boston took a 19-point lead in Game 3.
Yes, it was only the second quarter (and Game 4 is still to be played), but two things happened in that moment: Rondo broke Orlando’s will, and the Celtics’ confidence in themselves and in their new leader reached new heights.
"He's from Mars," Glen Davis said Sunday of his point guard. "He's a different player. For him to show the energy like that, we feed off things like that."
That is precisely why Boston needs to close out the Magic on Monday night.
Make no mistake about it: The Celtics haven’t won six straight over the league’s two best teams because they’re more talented. Instead, it's been a matter of hustle and hard work. Dwight Howard’s stat line tells the tale: 16.7 points, 46 percent shooting and nine rebounds in the Boston series compared to 21, 84 percent and 13.3 in a sweep of the Hawks.
That vintage Celtics grit will be crucial against the Lakers, assuming they meet in the destined Finals rematch everyone’s been buzzing about since the semis.
L.A., to be sure, has all the talent Kobe Bryant could whine for. They have one of the best centers in the game (and a second emerging as a dominant force), a lockdown defender, a sixth man who’d be a No. 2 scorer on most teams and, of course, Kobe. But the Mamba and Los Angeles have been known to take a road game off now and then.
They’re the La La team, pretty in their yellow and purple uniforms. They’ve got movie and music stars watching them courtside, they’ll settle too often for the outside jumper instead of getting dirty in the paint and their coach probably does yoga or meditates after particularly stressful games.
The Lakers, in short, are the antithesis to the Celtics.
For Boston to take advantage of that, much as it did in the 2008 Finals, the guys will need rest. Rondo’s energy, Kevin Garnett’s healthy knee, the team’s overall show of determination this postseason — it all hinges on finishing off Orlando early enough to give Boston the necessary time off.
Lose to the Magic Monday night, and the Celts will have to travel back down to Florida for a Game 5 on Wednesday (all that ignoring the concern, of course, that a Game 4 defeat could open the door to another vintage Orlando run in the playoffs).
That, too, could damage a sense of confidence that has propelled the Green from a lackluster 50-win regular season to a postseason that has some drawing comparisons to the ’06-’07 Spurs (think about it: A gritty team with a young, overachieving point guard and otherwise veteran roster which most said was too old to compete).
That opportunity cost becomes all the more expensive if the Lakers continue to let Phoenix hang around. L.A. lost Game 3 on Sunday night, allowing the Suns 118 points and taking a ridiculous 32 treys against a zone defense that might have provided a blueprint of sorts for the C’s in the Finals.
There is no reason to believe that, with Andrew Bynum hobbled, Phoenix can’t do it again Tuesday.
Which all leads to this: Match Boston against Los Angeles in the Finals, and it’s hard to argue the series is anything other than a 50-50 proposition.
But give Boston 10 days to rest coming off seven straight W’s over the NBA’s best, and the pendulum must swing — even if only slightly — in favor of the Boys from Beantown. And there’s no doubt: The Finals, if they fall as expected, will hinge on slightly.