NBA Playoff Recap -
Tuesday, May 12
More of the same in the East, and an abrupt turnaround in the West. Two different narratives were written in the latest night of unpredictable postseason basketball.
In Boston, the Celtics played the kind of game that--had it occurred in their old arena on Causeway Street--would have led many old-time NBA fans to invoke the ghosts of Boston Garden, and speak about the leprechauns guiding the bounces on the rims in the hot and cramped facility. Yes, the new-age C's now play in a modern building without the fabled history of its predecessor, but after Tuesday's ridiculously improbable 92-88 win over the Orlando Magic in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, it might be time to tell the "Tales of TD Banknorth."
Boston's new Garden has been around for a relatively short time, but just one year after the Celtics' first world championship since 1986, another New England spring is being filled with enough hardwood heroics to last another generation. In just one month of postseason play, the 2009 Celtics--defending their world title with incredible gallantry and ample honor--have played in several home games that will be remembered for a long time to come. That's saying a lot for pro basketball's most decorated franchise, especially since the C's--if they somehow win this series against Orlando--will have nothing left in the tank.
Consider the classics played at TD Banknorth Garden in recent weeks: First, there was the 118-115 win over Chicago in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference first round series. Then, there was the 106-104 victory over the Bulls in Game 5, thanks to the ice-veins shooting of Paul Pierce. Game 1 of the Bulls series--won by Chicago behind Derrick Rose's eye-popping 36 points--and Game 7 against Chicago--claimed by Boston thanks to 31 points from reserve Eddie House--also left a considerable imprint on every fan in attendance. No arena has seen more thrilling contests in these playoffs than Beantown's new basketball pleasure palace, and after the Celtics--once down by 28--came within a whisker of beating Orlando in Game 1 of this series, one had the sense that a city's joyride through May would continue to thrill and fascinate.
Oh, how it has.
Game 5 of Celtics-Magic did not acquire the quality of any of the Boston-Chicago games (except for a lopsided Game 3, of course), but in many ways, this particular tilt represented the prototypically haunting, stomach-punch puzzler that visiting teams often endured in the old Boston Garden. Orlando, you see, had a hammer-lock grip on the proceedings in this crucial confrontation. Stan Van Gundy's club--after trailing 8-6 with 6:25 left in the first quarter--maintained and built a lead with roughly three quarters of terrific defense. As Boston sharpshooter Ray Allen (3-of-11 from the field in this game) and point guard Rajon Rondo (3-of-12) struggled throughout, the Magic--playing with superior energy and vigor--showed every sign of bouncing back from Sunday's gut-wrenching Game 4 loss in Florida. When Orlando snagged a 77-63 lead with 8:48 left in the fourth quarter, it seemed just about impossible for a reeling and shorthanded Celtic squad to get off the deck.
That's when the ghosts of the old Garden, by all reasonable appearances, made their way into a new 21st century home.
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Stephon Marbury--that's right, STEPHON MARBURY--scored 12 fourth-quarter points to fire up the crowd and singlehandedly keep Boston competitive at TD Banknorth. That, in itself, had to be an omen of spookier events to come. As the quarter proceeded, Orlando veterans Hedo Turkoglu and Rafter Alston--as though possessed by evil spirits--threw up wild shots and lost any semblance of bodily control when they approached the rim. All in all, the Magic--who led 85-75 midway through the final period--failed to hit a single field goal attempt in the last 5:39 of regulation. But that was just the beginning of the story, crazy as it may seem.
If anyone needed to affirm the presence of mysterious forces at work in this game, fresh evidence emerged on a controversial call with the game's outcome hanging in the balance. A last-minute airball by Rondo was viewed by the officiating crew to have hit the rim, an error which gave Boston a fresh 24-second clock with 37 seconds left in a game the Celtics led, 86-85. Formerly in the gutter, the champs acquired their improbable one-point advantage thanks to an 11-0 run keyed by 8 points from Glen Davis, the Game 4 hero. Once in the lead, the Celtics held on the rest of the way by protecting the glass and hitting all six free throws in the final 15 seconds of play. Yes, Orlando didn't get favorable calls at key junctures, but as the Dallas Mavericks learned from their painful Game 3 loss to the Denver Nuggets last Saturday, you can't put yourself in position to lose on the basis of one bad call. Orlando had every chance to smother the Celtics long before the final horn. When the Magic instead collapsed and allowed Boston back into the fight, one miss was all it took for the Garden goblins to give Orlando a year's worth of nightmares on a long plane flight back to north Florida.
Now the 1984 Los Angeles Lakers (from Game 2 of that year's NBA Finals), the 1987 Detroit Pistons (from Game 5 of that year's Eastern Conference finals), and several other great basketball teams can tell the Orlando Magic, "that's what it's like to face the ghosts of the Garden." Forget the fact that this Garden is a new one, and that it's sponsored by a bank. For the past few weeks, and especially on one amazing night in Massachusetts, the home of the NBA's most storied organization has left visiting teams mumbling and wondering, "How the heck did that game slip away from us?!" An Orlando team that has to be beside itself with frustration must now find a way to regroup for Game 6, which will be held on Thursday evening at Amway Arena. The Celtics might be far more tired than any other team left in the playoffs, but with a 3-2 series lead, the guys in green will have a chance to punch their ticket to the Eastern Conference finals.
While the Celtics--wounded but resilient--continue to pull tough games out of the fire, the Western Conference's sexy semifinal series between Houston and Los Angeles is providing no regularity whatsoever. The defending champs from Beantown are making a habit out of winning close games, but the Rockets and Lakers aren't doing anything habitual at all. The only thing that can be said for this best-of-seven set is that it's been consistently inconsistent.
Fortunately for the Lakers, the pendulum swung their way on Tuesday night at Staples Center.
Just two days after laying an egg in Texas, the defending Western Conference champions regained their swagger and intensity, as they buried Houston, 118-78, to take a 3-2 lead in the second round of the playoffs. Whereas Houston did everything right and the Lakers everything wrong on a shocking Sunday in the Lone Star State, the roles were completely reversed on the California coast. Aaron Brooks (4-of-11 from the field) hit for just 14 points, while Game 4 sparkplug Shane Battier only went 2-for-7. Rick Adelman's fifth-seeded squad could only shoot 33 percent for the night, while the Lakers hit 51 percent of their shots and had huge advantages in terms of free throw attempts (36 to 16) and steals (12 to 4). Kobe Bryant scored 26 points to lead L.A., but even more importantly for Phil Jackson's roster, big men Pau Gasol (16 points, 13 boards) and Andrew Bynum (14 points, 6 boards) played with the passion that was so noticeably nonexistent in Game 4. When one team fulfills its potential and another team proves to be as flat as a tortilla, you'll get blowouts, and that's exactly what has happened in the last two games of the Rockets-Lakers series. Houston should consider itself fortunate to still be alive in this showdown, but the Lakers--after their Sunday debacle in enemy territory--have to be encouraged by their forceful response to adversity. Game 6 is Thursday in Houston, as Kobe and Co. will try to find a measure of steadiness and close down their dogged but erratic opponent without need of a Game 7.
By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer
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