Perhaps no team in the NBA has been a bigger disappointment so far this season than the Boston Celtics (though New York can make a case). Of the 16 playoff teams from last spring, only three (the Celtics, Knicks and Hornets) currently have a losing record, but in the case of the Hornets it's clear why they've dropped off after trading team leader Chris Paul, and the Knicks had all of 42 wins last season, so it's not like their fall has been precipitous. Boston on the other hand was a 56-win team returning most of its key players. Yet they recently suffered a string of five losses in six games and stood at 6-9 entering Monday night's meeting with Orlando.
The loss of Jeff Green to a heart condition in December shortly after re-signing him was a significant blow, and for this game the starting backcourt of Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo was sidelined with minor injuries. But perhaps the biggest concern for coach Doc Rivers was that the vaunted Celtics defense, ranked in the top five of the league every season of Kevin Garnett's tenure in Boston, was down to No. 14 in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions.
In other words, it didn't bode well for the Celtics heading into a game against an Orlando team that had won six of seven and sported the second most efficient offense in the league. So of course Boston won in a laugher, 87-56, in the process holding Orlando to franchise lows in points, shooting percentage (24.6 percent) and field goals made (16).
The Magic were held to 20 points in the second half, 10 each in the third and fourth quarters. The Celtics actually made more than twice as many field goals on the evening (33 to 16). Dwight Howard, Orlando's leading scorer and erstwhile Superman, played more like Clark Kent (or even Jimmy Olson) as he missed his final nine field goals after the first period. Howard did at least finish with 18 points and 14 rebounds; no other Orlando player scored more than seven. Orlando's second leading scorer coming in, Ryan Anderson, in the midst of a breakout season that has made him an early candidate for the Most Improved Player award, was scoreless in 23 minutes, shooting 0-8 overall, 0-4 from three point range.
Orlando was clearly out of sorts, but the Boston defense had something to do with that. The Celtics forced 23 turnovers which included 13 steals. (In another first, it was the only game in Orlando history in which they amassed more turnovers than field goals.) Avery Bradley, in the lineup in place of Rondo, pressured Jameer Nelson fullcourt all game, and created havoc for the Magic point guard. Bradley forced several backcourt turnovers, including one eight-second count, and even when Orlando was able to advance the ball to the frontcourt, they were hurried and out of position getting into their offensive sets.
On offense, Boston was led by Paul Pierce and Brandon Bass with 19 points apiece. An energized Kevin Garnett chipped in with 14 points, 10 rebounds, 5 steals and 2 blocks. But it was the defense that surely made Doc Rivers smile, and is the Celtics best path back to the playoffs.
With their second straight win the Celtics improve to 7-9. Orlando drops to 11-5.