The Celtics had the ball with 16 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of a tie game in their own building, and they were on the verge of a trip to the NBA Finals and a whole string of days off.
That was until Rajon Rondo picked up his dribble too high in the backcourt and scrambled to feed the ball to a blanketed Paul Pierce, who eventually muffed the ball and turned it over.
It was the epitome of a sloppy Monday night at the Garden for the Celtics, who dropped a 96-92 overtime decision to the Magic in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Boston has a 3-1 series lead heading into Wednesday's Game 5 in Orlando.
"We've just made it more difficult for ourselves, but no one said this was going to be easy," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We've made it tough now. That’s fine. We just have to get on a plane, go watch film and get ready for the next one."
Rivers didn’t like much about the loss — not the defensive energy in the first half, or the intensity on loose balls or the execution on offense, particularly on that final play of the fourth quarter when the game was tied at 86.
"The execution was so bad," Rivers said. "I thought we executed poorly throughout the game. We didn't make the next rotations. We didn’t make the next pass. It was amazing how bad we were execution-wise and still had a chance to win that game. That was amazing to me."
The ball was intended for Pierce on that final play, so the Celtics apparently got that part right. Pierce, who had 32 points and 11 rebounds, was supposed to work a high pick-and-roll with Ray Allen, but the floor got too crowded at the top of the arc. With time running down, Pierce tried to dribble through the defense and never put up a shot.
As it turned out, the Magic had the Celtics right where they wanted them. Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said it was going to be "anybody but" Pierce on that last play. The Magic had prepared for those exact situations, and they were willing to let someone else beat them. They sold out to swarm Pierce, and the plan worked.
"Just pretty much screwed it up," Pierce said. "Pretty much turned the ball over, and that’s all it is. Couldn’t get the final shot."
The loss can't just be pinned on that last play of the fourth quarter, though. Rondo had early trouble with fouls and turnovers, and he was dealing with fatigue in the game, too. The dynamic point guard just didn’t have it, and his counterpart, Orlando's Jameer Nelson, had his way all game with 23 points and nine assists.
The Celtics only had 19 assists in the game, and the ball stuck far too often. And outside of Ray Allen, who hit five of seven 3-pointers and scored 22 points, the Celtics were 0-for-11 from long distance. They pulled a disappearing act Monday night after winning six consecutive playoff games, and they'll have to regroup against an Orlando team that believes it's found some new life in the series.
"Definitely, there's no need to panic," Allen said. "We like the position that we're in, but there's always a lesson in humility."
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