Have Celtics Run Out of Gas?
BOSTON -- All the championship experience in the world isn't going to help the Boston Celtics Friday night if their legs start getting heavy again.
They may be running out of gas.
The Celtics still lead this peak-and-valley ride of an Eastern Conference final against the Orlando Magic, 3-2, but the wear and tear of a long season, coupled with the physical pounding of three playoff series, has begun to show. The momentum has shifted dramatically.
If the Celtics can't deliver their knockout punch early tonight in Game 6, it likely won't ever come. A potential Game 7 is slated for Sunday in Orlando.
In winning the first three games, the Celtics scored first on baskets by Paul Pierce and quickly took double-digit leads. They controlled the pace and broke the spirit of the Magic. In the next two the Celtics lost, it was the Magic who took early control, increased the speed of the game, and outran the Celtics at the end.
"I think they are wearing down. And we have to keep them down,'' said Magic forward Matt Barnes. "All the rest we got in the early rounds is helping us now.''
In all five games, the Celtics were outscored in the fourth quarter, and it was easy to see why. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen – the Big Three of Boston and future Hall of Famers – have been considerably better at the start of games than they have been at the end.
"That's something we've got to fix, obviously,'' said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "But those are kind of misleading numbers.''
In the five fourth quarters, Garnett has scored a total of two points. Allen has managed just 10 points. Pierce, their leading scorer in the series, has only 13 points in the five fourth quarters combined.
Pierce missed all four of his shots in the Game 4 overtime that could have ended the series in Boston. He missed his only two shots in the second half of the Game 5 loss in Orlando.
The late-game disappearances of Garnett has been even more glaring. Although he has smothered Orlando's Rashard Lewis defensively in this series, his inability to score late has been costly to the Celtics.
"We've got to get the ball to him more,'' Rivers said. "That's one thing, clearly. We've got to do a better job of trying to find him in the right spots, establishing him as part of the offense.''
The Magic, meanwhile, have ramped up the speed of play and used their superior depth, getting 10 players involved in meaningful minutes, hoping to wear down the Celtics even further.
The increased speed of play and better ball movement also has unleashed their 3-point attack that the Celtics had smothered so well in the first three games.
The Magic set NBA records for 3-pointers made and attempted this season, yet it wasn't until the last two games where they hurt the Celtics from long range. The Magic averaged 10.2 3-pointers this season, but they hit only five, seven and six, respectively in those first three losses.
They hit 10 3-pointers in Game 4 and 13 in Game 5. They are unbeaten this postseason in the six games in which they hit at least 10 3-pointers.
"It's important that we keep pushing the ball and play at a faster pace,'' said forward Rashard Lewis. "They are a great defensive team in the half court. It's hard to score when they're set. When we run and get those cross matchups, it gets us open shots on the perimeter.''
Lewis led the Magic in 3-pointers made this season (168), but he struggled badly in the first three games of this series. He gradually improved in the next two games. The viral infection that slowed him early has disappeared.
The Celtics, though, have a myriad of physical problems, which contributed to them wearing down. Glen Davis is expected to play Friday, despite his suffering a concussion Wednesday. Marquis Daniels, who also sustained a concussion, is not expected to be available. Rasheed Wallace, who was big in Game 5, aggravated his already sore back. Rajon Rondo has recovered from his earlier muscle spasms.
"It looked like a MASH unit in there (the locker room after Game 5),'' Rivers said. "I said to everyone, 'Isn't this great? This is the playoffs, so embrace it.'''