All throughout these playoffs, everyone, myself included, has been bashing the Celtics' opponents instead of giving the Celtics credit. It's natural, because it's hard to believe the same group that played such uninspired basketball for four months is suddenly looking like a juggernaut.
But that's exactly what the Celtics are right now. A juggernaut. Make no mistake, the Celtics are not benefiting from bad Magic play; they are taking Orlando's best shot and beating it. That isn't to say the Magic are playing perfectly. Far from it. However, the Magic are not underachieving in this series. They were a bit rusty in Game 1, but they made most of the necessary adjustments to win Game 2. As SB Nation's Magic blog Orlando Pinstriped Post wrote:
What makes this loss doubly frustrating is that Orlando indeed made the proper adjustments. Howard still got his share of post-up opportunities, but he moved more decisively this time, and showed softer touch and a calmer demeanor than he did in Game 1. He also got some chances on the move.
Beyond that, Vince Carter remained aggressive, Rashard Lewis made a more conscious effort to at least catch the ball in good spots and J.J. Redick continued to excel. And it still wasn't enough. The Celtics adjusted to Carter's big Game 1 and made him into a jump shooter. They continued to corral Jameer Nelson, understanding that throwing off his rhythm is the key to beating the Magic. Finally, with the help of Lewis himself, they continue to do what's necessary to bother him. Maybe it's an extra half-step on a defensive rotation, or an extra inch on an outstretched arm, but those things matter. Boston's doing all of them, and that's how they were able to win a game they had no business winning.
To be clear, when I say "no business winning," it's not because Boston played poorly. In fact, it's quite the opposite. As I wrote yesterday, Magic fans (and everyone, really), had every reason to shrug off Game 1. They were rusty. They hadn't been challenged. The Celtics had the right momentum. Etc. Those sound like excuses, but they're legitimate, for one game at least. They should have put forth a better effort in Game 2, and they did. But Boston did too, because they knew what was coming and they raised their game accordingly. One could make an argument that Game 1 was handed to the Celtics, but let there be no doubt that the Celtics took Game 2.
So anyway, it's time to give the Celtics credit. So here are five points, without elaboration, on how the Celtics are playing. Feel free to discuss them in the comments.
Point 1: Somehow, Rajon Rondo is still underrated. Best point guard in the league? No, that's crazy talk. But he is the best ... something. I've had trouble putting it into words until now, but I think I have the right statement.
Rajon Rondo creates an advantage in more areas of the game than any point guard in the NBA.
Chris Paul is a better passer and ball-handler. Deron Williams is a better scorer. Steve Nash is a better shooter. Derrick Rose is more explosive. But Rondo has his hands in more areas than all of them, and while his total impact may not exceed some of those guys, the fact that he's able to affect the game in so many ways makes him so, so valuable. Thoughts?
Point 2: Paul Pierce is the East coast Kobe Bryant. No, Pierce isn't as good as Kobe, but like Kobe, his offensive game is so complete that he doesn't need to put up big stats. Like Kobe, he has bad shooting games, and like Kobe, he can misunderstand the rhythm of the game. But at the same time, when he's on, he has the complete package, when it comes to offensive skills. The athleticism isn't there anymore, but the intelligence is. Just like Kobe.
Point 3: Doc Rivers is the perfect coach for this team. They don't need to be paralyzed with Xs and Os, like a younger team, or, frankly, like the Magic. They just need a guy that understands when to yell at them and when to let them be. That guy is Doc Rivers. So while Rivers is a misfit on a lot of teams, he's perfect for this roster.
Point 4: Tom Thibodeau needs a head coaching job already. This is pretty self-explanatory.
Point 5: The emergence of Rondo means the Celtics don't need Kevin Garnett to be Garnett. The career arc of those two players couldn't have worked out better for the Celtics.
There you go, Celtics fans. There's your praise. Y'all happy? I hope so. Your team deserves it.
Onto tonight, where I hope Phoenix wins and we get a real series.
Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Lakers: Game 2, 9:00 p.m., TNT
Game 1 in one sentence: Kobe Bryant set the tone and the rest of the Lakers followed as they blew out the Suns with a dominating offensive performance.
Problem the Suns must solve to win: I think it's best to just go with this video.
Problem the Lakers must solve to win again: The Lakers can't fall in love with the jumper, especially because there's a strong possibility the Suns will try a zone defense at times to help them deal with the disadvantages they have in the individual matchups. As SB Nation's Lakers blog Silver Screen and Roll points out, the Lakers shot a high percentage from three-point range in Game 1, but they can't count on that again. They're going to have to attack the hoop, and only then will the three-point shots be open.
Prediction: Phoenix will play better, but I don't think it'll be enough to stop a Lakers team that's really clicking. Lakers 107, Suns 102.