WALTHAM, Mass. — Playing better may not save the Orlando Magic’s season. Playing harder just might.
The team that charged into the Eastern Conference finals with 14 straight wins rolled over Saturday night when it lost its hustle – and its third game in a row – against the Boston Celtics.
Another loss Monday night would give Boston a sweep and end Orlando’s hopes for a second consecutive berth in the NBA finals.
“I’m somebody who says I’m never shocked,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said after practice Sunday, “but I was shocked (Saturday) night that we didn’t handle the situation better and play with more intensity and determination.”
Down 7-0 in the first two minutes. Trailing by 16 points in the first quarter. Never closer than 14 after that. And behind by 32 before Boston coach Doc Rivers began clearing his bench in the fourth quarter.
When the 94-71 rout was complete, the Magic could hardly believe their predicament. They had the second-best regular season record in the East, then swept Charlotte and Atlanta in the first two rounds to make it to the conference finals.
But now this?
“I expected us to be up 3-0,” Jason Williams said, “but down 0-3 is a big surprise.”
And an obstacle that’s never been overcome in the history of the NBA.
The Celtics are focusing simply on one game. A win Monday night would send them to the NBA finals with a chance for their second championship in three years and their 18th overall.
“This team is not complacent,” Paul Pierce said. “We’re too close to our goals. You’ve got a team that’s won the championship so we understand what it takes. We understand the mental toughness that you’ve got to have at this point in the season. So I don’t see any slippage from us and, hopefully, we can close this thing out on Monday.”
Boston has won the first three games in 10 other series; it won four of those in four games and the other six in five. This year, teams took 3-0 leads in five series that have been completed and swept four of them. In the other, Boston beat Miami in five games.
Rivers is among coaches who have been ahead in such series who would prefer that his players ignore those numbers.
“Every time now a series goes 2-0 or 2-1 or 3-1, you hear all these stats,” he said, “and I guarantee you, wherever that coach is, he’s cussing at the TV. … You’ve still got to play the game.”
Or games. The Boston Bruins led the Philadelphia Flyers 3-0 in this year’s NHL Eastern semifinals then lost the next four, ending their colossal collapse in the same building where the Celtics and Magic will play Monday.
But the Bruins had key injuries and a lack of discipline during important stretches. The Celtics are as healthy as they’ve been all season and playing extremely coordinated team defense.
“That’s a whole different sport,” Rajon Rondo said. “I don’t know what happened in the locker room of the Bruins. I’m not there. I know in our locker room we’re going to stay focused and try to close it out.”
Last season, the Celtics took a 3-2 lead over Orlando then lost the next two games of the Eastern semifinals. But that’s when Kevin Garnett was sitting on the bench in street clothes because of a knee injury.
Now the vocal leader and best defender on a defensive-minded team is healthy. Pierce is leading the Celtics in scoring in the series, Rondo is setting up the offense with his passing and Ray Allen is chipping in with key baskets.
But “without Kevin, we can’t win a championship,” Pierce said. “You can’t replace Kevin.”
Garnett is overflowing with the qualities the Magic have lacked in the series – desire, determination and effort.
“They thumped us pretty good,” Van Gundy said. “Everything has to change, from our defensive disposition to our effort to our offensive energy and decision making.”
Dwight Howard needs a big change. He had only 7 points and 7 rebounds Saturday night after scoring 30 in Game 2.
“I’m not going to give up on myself. I’m not going to give up on my teammates,” he said. “There’s no need for us to be sad. We’re playing a sport that we love.”
There weren’t any long faces at Sunday’s practice. That helped the Magic move on from Saturday’s failure and concentrate on trying to send the series back to Orlando for Game 5 on Wednesday night.
“This is not the team that you saw win 59 games during the course of the season and win the first two series,” Jameer Nelson said. “You feel better about yourself once you start practicing.
“You can’t do anything about things in the past. You just have to learn from them.”