You can talk about Perkins’ suspension. You can talk about Rajon Rondo’s second consecutive sub-par game. You can talk about Garnett and Pierce both struggling from the field. But the biggest reason the Orlando Magic won game five of the Eastern Conference Finals is that they played like the team who won 59 games in the regular season and dominated the first two rounds of the playoffs. They got Howard going without having to force-feed him in the post. They dominated the paint on defense and contested every shot. And most of all, they hit those three-pointers they love to shoot so much.
Yesterday, the three-point shot was what allowed the Suns to tie up their series with the Lakers. On Wednesday night, it was Orlando’s faith in the three-ball that allowed them to make the conference finals competitive again. After being held scoreless for the first two minutes of the game, Vince Carter jump-started the Magic offense with a three. Rashard Lewis hit a three of his own on the next Magic possession, and the onslaught from beyond the arc would continue for the next 45 minutes of the game.
After struggling mightily from deep over the course of the first three games, the Magic finally found some success with the three-point shot in game four; on Wednesday night, they opened the floodgates. The Magic hit eight three-pointers in the first half, and went 13-25 on threes over the course of the game. Instead of dumping the ball to Howard and hoping the ball would return to their shooters for open looks, the Magic came out looking to get their three-point shooters going first and then setting up Howard. It was a subtle adjustment, but it was the key to the game.
When the Celtics lost Jameer Nelson on the pick-and-roll, he would pull up for a three. When they sagged back to try and stop someone from getting into the paint, that player would toss it back to the corner for a three. When the Magic got an offensive rebound, they would kick it out for a three. Catch-and-shoot, off the dribble, off a screen, it didn’t matter. The Magic never hesitated to let it fly, and with their home crowd giving them confidence, they never stopped hitting them.
The Celtics didn’t have a horrible offensive game, but Orlando was able to impose their will on that end. KG never got comfortable down low, the Magic packed the paint on Rondo in the half-court and kept him from getting out in transition, they never lost Ray Allen on screens, and they never gave Pierce any open shots in the half-court. They swarmed the ball on the perimeter, and Howard was there to contest every shot inside, even getting a chase-down block on Rondo at one point.
The Magic weren’t as red-hot in the second half as they were in the first, but with Perkins off the floor, they were able to use their size advantage to wear the Celtics down by drawing foul after foul after foul. The Celtics were able to hang around for a while, but two quick-trigger threes by Jameer Nelson and a Pietrus dunk put the Magic up by 18 with five and a half minutes to play and effectively ended the game.
Not that long ago, it looked like the Magic were on the verge of getting swept. If Perkins’ suspension holds, the Celtics will either have to win without Perkins at home or win in Orlando to make it to the NBA finals for the second time in three years. Sometimes your luck can change just that fast in the world of professional sports.