Kevin Garnett just sat there, impeccably dressed as always, once again removed from the biggest games of the year. Minus their best player, the Celtics did the logical thing: They took away Orlando's best player.
Last night, Dwight Howard might as well have been wearing a jacket and tie, too.
Facing the possibility of a terminal 2-0 series deficit and a trip to the unhappiest place on earth, the Celtics obliterated the Orlando Magic last night by a 112-94 score in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The series is now locked at a game apiece. And for all that took place in 48 encouraging minutes at the TD Banknorth Garden, the most impressive was that the Celtics neutralized the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year and rendered him utterly invisible, particularly on his end of the floor.
"You couldn't ask for much more," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of his team's overall offensive performance. "I thought we had about one bad 5-minute stretch and that was it."
And that stretch came at the start of the third quarter, long after the Celtics had taken complete control of a game that Boston literally led wire-to-wire. In the second half, the Magic never got closer than 13 points. And when all was said and done, the uniquely talented Howard -- Rivers repeatedly calls him "a freak" -- had failed to block a shot for the first time in a game this postseason, largely because the Celtics had him simultaneously running in so many different directions that Howard didn't know which way was up.
Statistically speaking, the Magic finished the season as the third-best defensive team in the league based on opposing field goal percentage, the sixth-best based on scoring. But once you minimize Howard's presence, the Magic deteriorate almost the same way the Celtics do without Garnett, a fitting phenomenon given that they are the last two NBA Defensive Players of the Year.
So what did the Celtics do last night? They drew Howard from the basket, setting a succession of perimeter picks that effectively hollowed out the Orlando defense. When Howard stepped out, the Celtics went to the basket, orchestrating the kind of attack that left Orlando head coach Stan Van Gundy with little choice but to call his team's pick-and-roll defense "horrendous."
As for Howard ...
"It starts with me on both ends," he admitted. "The first game I was more active on the defensive end. I was able to block shots, rebound, run the floor and be aggressive. [In Game 2], it just wasn't there. So it starts with me."
It ends with him, too. And sometimes, like last night, it ends in a ball of fire.
As for the events at the other end of the floor, the workmanlike efforts of Kendrick Perkins have become a cliché at this point. Perkins is long enough to contest Howard's shots and big enough to bang with him, making him the ideal candidate to match up with such an unusual combination of size and athleticism. Rivers has said on more than one occasion this season that Howard's skills have not yet caught up with his raw ability, which means that keeping him away from the basket is of utmost importance. At this stage of Howard's career, your chances against him are much better if you can keep him eight feet from the rim, something Perkins has been able to do with reasonable consistency given the uniquely blended assets of The Freak.
This season, while leading the NBA in blocks and rebounding, Howard also finished fourth in the NBA (first in the Eastern Conference) with a .572 field goal percentage. And yet, during the regular season, the Celtics were just one of five teams against whom Howard shot below 50 percent, undoubtedly a big reason that the Celtics and their followers seem to fear the Magic less than they did the Chicago Bulls.
Still, Howard currently is more of a defensive force than he is an offensive one, which makes the Celtics' efforts at that end all the more important in this series. Last night, much to the chagrin of Howard and is coach, the Celtics completely picked Orlando apart at the end of the floor that is statistically the Magic's strength, and the only real question is whether the Celtics can continue to repeat it.
"He wants to stay in the paint, but eventually he has to come out," Rivers said of Howard. "As long as he's away from the basket, that's what we want."
Last night, even Garnett wasn't much farther from the hoop.
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