It only took a few minutes after Boston advanced to the NBA finals for the questions to turn to “can you win the title?” But Boston had already been talking about that. Orlando had been talking title, too, which makes this one hard to take.
Fans love Nate Robinson — he’s a guy their height who can come in and shoot their team to a win on any night.
Coaches fear playing Nate Robinson because he freelances and can shoot you right out of a game just as easy.
Doc Rivers had used Nate Robinson sparingly because of that. But he knew. Someday he was going to need Nate Robinson.
“I told him almost every practice, I made a point of going over to him and say, ‘stay engaged, at some point you’re going to win a game for us’,” Rivers said in his post game press conference broadcast on NBA TV.
That game turned out to be Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The one that sent the Celtics into the NBA finals for the second time in three years.
Nate had 13 points, all in the second quarter, having been forced into action after a nasty fall to Rajon Rondo.
“The game could have gone either way at that point, we were up 6 or 8 and Rondo gets hurt, and he came in and was such a spark plug,” Paul Pierce said.
Actually, the Celtics were up 11, but the game still felt like it was close. Robinson hit two quick threes to start a Celtics roll from which the Magic would never recover. But more important was his defense. Robinson is not exactly a shut down defender. Sort of the opposite. But on this night he was all over Jason Williams and later Jameer Nelson, keeping the Magic point guards in check.
One of the key reasons Rivers had gone away from Robinson ad been defense, but that had changed.
“He gave him confidence in Game 5 that he had bought into the defensive system and there were a couple of sets that he could have success against them with,” Rivers said.
Robinson, between his time with the Knicks and Celtics, had been off the court far more then he had been on it this season. A lot of players get soft — physically and mentally — when that happens. Not Robinson.
“I’ve been patiently waiting to play,” he said in an interview with NBA TV after the game. “I think I can help the team in so many ways… Doc told me I was going to help the team win a playoff game, today was the day.”
It couldn’t have come at a better time.
Well, maybe a game in the Finals would be better. And does anybody doubt that’s a possibility?
Jameer Nelson came off the picks like he had done for the last two games, attacked into the paint like he had done for two games, tried to shoot like he had for two games.
And there were long arms in the way. Not fouling, but altering shots. His kick-out passes led to contested Magic threes that were missed. The Celtics seemed to be everywhere, contesting everything. It looked like the first three games. It looked like 2008. They held the potent Magic offense to 43 percent shooting, more importantly just 6 of 22 from three.
The defense got the Celtics the win. The defense got them past Cleveland then Orlando in the East. It put them in the NBA Finals for the 21st time. It should strike fear in whomever comes out of the West.
The Celtics brought much better defensive energy tonight, plus they got back to what their game plan had been all series — go ahead and let Dwight Howard get his, don’t let the three point shooters get going.
Howard had 28 points on 11 of 17 shooting. With the Celtics fans letting him have it — he has become public enemy number one after the hard fouls in Game 5 — Howard did his part. But the rest of the Magic did not. They are an inside out team that shot just 27.3 percent from three.
It was not all great defense. The Magic had their chances — they got some open looks. But when things went bad, the Magic went away from what they do.
“I think early in the game we got outstanding shots, and they didn’t go down…” said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy in his post game press conference, televised on NBA TV. “Then we started forcing our offense, instead of trying to get the same shots we had. Then we had some defensive lapses, we didn’t get back on defense. They had 16 first half points.”
Then at the start of the third, two key Ray Allen three solidified the Celtics lead at 19. After that the Magic pressed, they gambled, and none of it worked. For the most part the Celtics stayed disciplined. The Celtics seemed to have defensive lapses in the second half, but the Magic could do nothing about it.
Next Thursday either the Lakers or Suns will meet the Celtics defense. Two very different, very difficult teams to stop. But after what the Celtics have done the last two rounds, it is those teams out West that should fear the Celtics defense (the Lakers have it seared into their minds what it can do). If Boston keeps playing like they have, knocking off the teams with the two best records in the NBA, there may be no offense that can keep them from having to find room for another banner.
Man is it going to be fun to watch what happens inside the paint tonight tonight. Both as a fan of basketball and MMA — because there is going to be some banging.
Dwight Howard and Kendrick Perkins are going to go at it inside, technicals be damned. Big Baby is back from his injury and ready to rock. You know Sheed will be ready to go, game time decision or not. Celtics fans want blood; Celtics players are going to stand their ground. Howard is not giving an inch.
And all that is not going to decide the game, that’s just the sideshow.
Point guards will decide this one. Not those two men alone, but how the other team’s defense deals with them.
For the first three games, it was all Rajon Rondo. Then since the Magic went to more staggered double screens for Jameer Nelson, he started feeling comfortable enough to attack, and he has been the story as the Magic have won two in a row.
Stop Nelson and you stop the Magic. ESPN did the math for us (and the fantastic Eddie Rivera posted it for us): in the first three games, Nelson shot 38.2 percent, that jumped to 52.8 percent the last two games. More importantly, his points per possession (where he has the shot or assist, or turnover) jumped from 0.86 to 1.21 (know that basically one is the average).
The Celtics knew they had to adjust, so in Game 5 they started to send Paul Pierce in to help on the pick-and-roll, leaving Matt Barnes as the guy to beat them. He did in the first quarter, he hit a couple threes. Combine that with some foul trouble and the Celtics sort of abandoned that strategy.
They should go back to it tonight — Barnes was a 31 percent three-point shooter during the season. Granted, he has hit almost 38 percent in the playoffs, but this is going to a high-pressure, on the road situation. Make Barnes prove he can do it. If that doesn’t work, well, better have a Plan B.
The other Celtic defender that needs to step up in Kevin Garnett — he needs to be everywhere. His responsibilities are huge, but such is the role. He has to help inside, he has to have rotations and recover on shooters (especially his man Rashard Lewis). KG has to be part of stopping the pick and roll, because if the Celtics do that they stop the Magic attack.
Conversely, the Magic need to continue to hold Rajon Rondo in check. They have been physical with him the last couple of games, they have to continue to be without getting fouls. Rondo for his part needs to get back to pushing the pace — something the Celtics should be more comfortable doing at home (we say should, they have not always done that this season). The Celtics need a few easy buckets in transition.
They also need Garnett to get more points on Lewis — KG has the height advantage in the post, he needs to exploit it and when the double comes hit the open man. Garnett needs to go back to being the guy who abused Antawn Jamison last round, not the tentative guy from the conference finals. Some hot shooting from Ray Allen would solve a lot of problems as well.
But it still comes back to the point guards.
Tonight, one of the two guys is going to get loose. Nelson is going to continue to run the pick and roll with impunity, and the Magic will force a Game 7. Rondo will get loose in transition and hit some shots at the rim in the half court — maybe even draw a foul — and the Celtics will end this series and await the winner of the next one.
The big banging bodies in the paint will be fun to watch. But the point guard battle will decide this game. And the series.