The Magic were on the brink of franchise embarrassment on Monday night, as the Celtics were in command of the series with a 3-0 lead and came back to force overtime despite fantastic outings by Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson. Orlando’s season could have drifted away had Paul Pierce found an open Ray Allen at the end of regulation, but Pierce uncharacteristically bobbled away a late-game possession and the Magic survived the overtime period to avoid elimination.
That possession though, and the overtime as well, were icing on the cake of a much-improved overall game for the Magic. The defense still has plenty of room for the improvement and some of the missed opportunities on offense were just painful, but Orlando looked to be a substantial step closer to the excellence they displayed in the first two rounds of the playoffs and the final months of the regular season.
As good as the Celtics have been, the Magic’s unraveling has been something of a wonder. It can’t all be chalked up to Boston’s top-notch defense, as some of Orlando’s underwhelming Conference Finals showing seems to stem from nowhere at all. The Magic played against quality defensive teams in the regular season, but none of those games have been quite as befuddling as the first three in this series, during which Orlando’s offense was shackled, weighted, and thrown into the ocean.
Even beyond that, the Magic were the second best defensive team in the regular season, but the Celtics have averaged a full +3.7 points per 100 possessions above the Magic’s regular season mark in defensive efficiency. Considering how ho-hum this Boston team can be on offense when Rajon Rondo isn’t inspiring epic poems of his exploits, that’s a troublesome and somewhat inexplicable number. Orlando has underperformed in this series, perhaps woefully so.
Reading through that narrative, it may sound shocking similar to that of the Cleveland Cavaliers. They were a superb team in the regular season and still looked awfully strong in their playoff debut. Yet the team crumbled, and the first head to roll was head coach Mike Brown. LeBron received plenty of criticism for his Game 5 anomaly, but it was Brown’s reluctance to adapt the rotation that made the series against the Celtics far more difficult than it had to be. The Cavs still may not have won even if Brown’s performance had been flawless, but he was as culpable as anyone for the way Cleveland left the playoffs.
Yet you won’t — and shouldn’t — see anything in the coaching of that series that even remotely parallels this one. It may seem like Stan Van Gundy’s system is under fire, but SVG’s offensive adjustments in Game 4 showed why he’s still one of the best in the business.
With an understanding that guard penetration would be the key to unlocking the offense and that limiting Rajon Rondo’s effectiveness on the other end would ease his team’s defensive burden, Van Gundy devised an approach that could tackle both problems simultaneously. Whenever Jameer Nelson had the ball on the perimeter, he had the option of using two staggered screens to brush off Rondo. Rajon’s length and quickness had bothered Jameer throughout the series, and having not one, but two big bodies running interference freed up Nelson enough to pull-up from behind the arc or get all the way to the rim.
Plus, no one should discount how much running through screens can take out of a defender. Just ask any player who’s had the displeasure of defending Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, or Rip Hamilton about how exhausting it can be to chase shooters through screens all night. It’s not exactly the way that any player wants to spend their time on the defensive end. With Rondo asked to fight through several screens on pretty much every possession down the floor (another essential component of the plan was putting the ball in Nelson’s hands more often, which worked beautifully) while also running the Celtics offense, the burden of those dual responsibilities undoubtedly took a physical toll on him.
Running Rondo ragged, playing J.J. Redick major minutes, sitting the ice-cold Vince Carter during crucial moments in the fourth quarter — these are the reasons why Stan Van Gundy would have a job even if the Eastern Conference Finals had ended in a sweep. Among the most logical reasons to fire a coach is a distrust in them to make the right adjustments. That has never and will never be the case with Van Gundy. He makes mistakes — with sets, with the rotation, with certain play calls — but he’s a perfectionist that works tirelessly to correct those mistakes. He’s always tinkering, and his willingness to adjust is what makes him so valuable as a head coach.
Stan Van Gundy is not Mike Brown. Brown may not deserve the ridiculous amount of criticism he’s received over the years, but his inability to compromise — which is a bit odd to say for so amicable a coach — put his team at a disadvantage at inopportune times. The same is just not true of Van Gundy, and wouldn’t have been made more true if the Magic’s playoff run ended in a sweep.