Something happened after the Celtics’ 6-0 start to the season. It was like — to steal a line from Jay-Z — somebody slipped the Celtics an Ambien because they’ve looked lethargic and downright disinterested in splitting the six games since.
You just get the sense that the Celtics started sleepwalking, awaiting the next real challenge and just content to roll out a good quarter here or a good quarter there to put lesser teams — or perceived lesser teams — away. Teams as talented as the Celtics can get away with that, until they meet teams equally as talented.
Tonight, is the opportune time for the Celtics to shake off their early-season ennui because the defending Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic are in town for the teams’ first meeting of the season. This isn’t just Game 13 of 82 for both teams, who enter with identical 9-3 marks, it’s an opportunity to make a statement.
The Celtics rivalry with the Cavaliers might be considered sexier simply because of the presence of LeBron James, but the NBA knows the value of the Celtics-Magic matchup. The respect for the rivalry is obvious, considering the next time the teams will meet after tonight is in Orlando on Christmas Day, which is always filled with commissioner David Stern’s showcase games.
“A lot has been given to us and Cleveland to start off the year, but Atlanta and Orlando are other teams to reckon with,” said Celtics guard Ray Allen. “It’s not like it’s something that is going to be handed to any one of us. … But they look good, and we know they’re a team that we’re going to have to reckon with and will most likely see in the postseason.”
Let’s get something straight right now. If the Celtics play the brand of basketball they displayed in losses to Atlanta and Indiana and in Wednesday’s win over the rudderless Golden State Warriors, then they’re not going to beat Orlando tonight or in the postseason and they know it.
“Yeah, we can’t play the way we played the last few games and expect to be the top-tier team,” said forward Paul Pierce. “I mean that’s the reason they’re a top-tier team because they’re a team that is not going to beat themselves. You got to go out there and make them play and go out there and beat them. If you have mental lapses for one or two quarters you can easily get blown out. If you look at it, they’ve blown some teams out and it hasn’t been close some of their games when they’ve been healthy.”
That’s what is exciting about tonight’s visit from Dwight Howard and the Magic. It’s an opportunity to see just how good this Celtics team really is and can be. It’s obvious that they think they’re good and that’s been part of the problem so far this season.
There is no reason the Magic, who come in as winners of three straight and boast a roster as deep as any team in the NBA, shouldn’t bring out the best in the Green. Motivation will not be an issue.
The last time Orlando ventured to the Garden, the Magic sent the Kevin Garnett-less Celtics packing with a resounding 101-82 victory in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. That capped a Magic comeback from 3-2 down, the first time in the storied history of the Celtics that they lost a series when leading 3-2. Orlando went on to beat Cleveland in six games before being part of Kobe Bryant’s coronation in the NBA Finals.
Garnett, who missed the playoffs with bone spurs in his right knee, was asked how he felt after Game 7 last season and his answer said it all:
“Pissed. Probably like everybody else. Pissed. Very pissed.”
The Celtics insisted yesterday — unconvincingly — that this isn’t Game 8 of last year’s playoff series for them. Whether they mean it or not, they’re right. It can’t be. Both teams have changed too much from last spring.
Boston got KG back to anchor its defense and remade its roster with Rasheed Wallace, Marquis Daniels and the surprising Shelden Williams, in large part to combat Orlando’s size, length and athleticism up front with Howard, who is a cross between Shawn Kemp and a young Moses Malone, and sharpshooting Rashard Lewis.
Orlando lost Hedo Turkoglu, who had 25 points and 12 assists in Game 7, but traded for Vince Carter to replace him. Shrewd Magic general manager Otis Smith also went out and signed forward Brandon Bass from Dallas, underrated swing man Matt Barnes (he is James Posey without the 3-point range) and exhumed Randy Moss’s old running mate in West Virginia, Jason Williams, to play backup point guard. With Jameer Nelson out 4-6 weeks with torn cartilage in his left knee, J-Will is now the point man for the Magic.
Of course amid all the changes, the biggest difference is that this time the Celtics have Garnett. KG could only sit idly by in a suit and watch as the undersized Celtics struggled to stop the Magic’s inside-out attack with the 6-foot-10-inch Lewis shooting over the top of Glen Davis.
Lewis was suspended for the first 10 games of the season for testing positive for an elevated testosterone level. He had a near triple-double in his second game back (17 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists), despite sitting out the entire fourth quarter of Orlando’s 108-94 win over Oklahoma City on Wednesday night.
Garnett chuckled to himself when he was asked whether he was looking forward to playing Orlando.
“I’m not a vengeful person. I’m just looking forward to playing them,” said Garnett. “They’re considered one of the best teams, so we’re going to rate ourselves and grade ourselves on that and trying to play better.”
Win or lose, Orlando might provide just the wake-up call the slumbering Celtics need.