While a good chunk of their fanbase were busy dusting off their green "Beat L.A." T-shirts from two summers ago, the Celtics were busy Monday night squandering a golden opportunity to do away with the Orlando Magic and advance to the NBA Finals.
Maybe in their minds, they'd already gotten there.
The temptation is hard to avoid. Everyone, from the fans chanting "Beat L.A." in the middle of Game 3 Saturday night, to the media members speculating about the upcoming Finals, to the purple and gold-clad fans on the other coast, is thinking about Celtics-Lakers. The rivalry, the history, it's got all the makings of a classic Finals. But the Celtics learned a valuable lesson on Monday night: They absolutely can't afford to look ahead. Not just yet.
"I know they heard it," coach Doc Rivers said of all the Finals speculation. "They had no choice but to hear it. I don't know if they believed it or not, but we didn't play well, I know that. I hope that wasn't the reason for it. But it could have been."
After Monday night's loss, the Celtics' first in over two weeks, Rivers kept turning over in his mind the mental mistakes. His team didn't think to move the ball effectively on offense. They didn't think to be aware of the 3-point threat defensively. They didn't execute, they didn't bring energy.
Playoff basketball is a mental game as well a physical one. And the Celtics played like a team whose heads weren't entirely in it.
It would just be speculation to say the Celtics were distracted by the allure of Kobe Bryant and company. But in this case, it really seemed to make sense.
Ray Allen, for one, admitted that the Celtics weren't entirely there. But he wasn't so quick to pinpoint a reason.
"I don't think anybody on this team was looking past today," Allen said. "We weren't definitely in the game. But you have so many things on your mind, you weren't thinking about what was happening tomorrow. It was all about that moment. We have such great talent on this team, such great individual talent on both ends of the floor that each man feels like they can get the defensive stop. Each guy feels like they can make the shot to win the game for us. Sometimes that's been to our team's detriment. … I think there were spurts tonight where we weren't great. We were just average."
Doesn't matter whether you're up 3-1 or you're down — this series demands better than average performance, mentally and physically. The Magic aren't about to fold up shop and go home, not with their season on the line. The Celtics are smart. They know that.
"They’re a great team," said Paul Pierce. "We’re not going to take it for granted. Game 5 is going to be a tough one back on their floor to play, but it is what it is, and we've got try to get another win in their building. That’s the goal. We really don’t want to come back here and play a Game 6. The sense of urgency is going to be there when we get on the road. Hopefully we can take care of business."
Throughout this postseason, Rivers has stressed the importance of the process. He tells his players to respect each individual game, each quarter, each minute. He doesn't want them getting too far ahead of themselves, not when every single game holds so much importance.
Game 5 will be a test for the Celtics. Their goal on Wednesday night in Orlando is to stay in the moment, to focus on one game, and to do everything in their power to get one win.
Obviously, this team's goal is a title. But that's still a ways off, and the Celtics can't put the cart before the horse. Or, for that matter, the Lakers (and don't discount the Suns just yet) before the Magic.
A lot in this postseason is still yet to be determined. The Celtics have big dreams, but they can't take anything for granted.
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