ORLANDO -- Game 4 is Sunday night, and will both teams please arrive on time?
This insipid see-sawing Eastern semifinal is developing an unfortunate Harlem Globetrotters vs. Washington Generals rhythm. On Friday the Celtics surrendered one of their worst defensive performances of the season in a 117-96 loss to the Magic, who grabbed a 2-1 lead. For most of this series one team or the other has been running unopposed."It shows that you can't predict,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I thought this would be a phenomenal game tonight, that both teams would play unbelievable basketball and we would get -- finally -- a good game.''
In the opening round the Magic clobbered the 76ers when their center Dwight Howard was suspended, and now in Game 3 they clobbered the Celtics while their point guard Rafer Alston was suspended."`I can't explain that,'' said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, who may have reason to worry: Celtics center Kendrick Perkins could very well be suspended from Game 4 for a fourth-quarter elbow to the throat of Mickael Pietrus (penalized as a Flagrant 1 foul by the referees). In which case Orlando All-Stars Howard and Rashard Lewis will be opposed by a leftovers Boston frontcourt of Glen (Big Bay) Davis and Brian Scalabrine or Mikki Moore. Which, in turn, should make the Celtics prohibitive favorites to even the series, based on current paradoxical trends.
"It is getting to the point now that everytime something happens, you're supposed to get up here and lobby for this guy to get suspended,'' said Van Gundy in a criticism that was echoed by Rivers. "And I don't like it. Suspend them in the regular season or next year.''
To dwell on the dead horse that these suspension-laden playoffs are fast becoming, the Magic entered the fourth quarter in fear of being defined by the talent they were lacking. Top point guards Alston and Jameer Nelson were suspended and injured, respectively, and No. 3 option Anthony Johnson sat winded on the bench after an ugly turnover blighted an otherwise impressive showing of 13 points on 7 shots in 28 minutes. Their 20-point lead had dwindled down to a single digit on a period-ending run fueled by Paul Pierce's drives to the free-throw line (where he was 14 of 14 for the bulk of his team-high 27) and an extended offensive collapse by the Magic, who had failed to get the ball to the rim on their last three possessions of the third quarter.
On top of all that came the benching of Howard for his fifth personal with 9:50 remaining while needlessly blocking a drive by Eddie House 25 feet from the basket.
But by then Hedo Turkoglu (24 points and four assists) was taking over. Running the point with Johnson on the bench, the 6-9 forward restarted Orlando's offense by persistently driving the ball inside. His reward for one layup was to have Big Baby land flat on top of him, creating the brief impression that Turkoglu had vanished from the face of the earth. But he reappeared, and with the Celtics lingering within 11 Turkoglu beat Scalabrine consecutively for five points from the perimeter to extend the lead back out to 95-79 as Orlando's fans let loose a pent-up roar of gratitude and relief.
"We played with a lot more energy tonight,'' Van Gundy said.
"`I was disappointed in how we competed tonight,'' Rivers said.
The Celtics didn't make a jump shot of length until the third minute of the second quarter. Ray Allen was 3 of 13, and point guard Rajon Rondo was limited to six assists mainly because the Magic shot a ridiculous 59.1 percent to prevent him from pushing the ball. Howard (5 blocks to go with 14 rebounds and 17 points on 8 shots) had promised to show leadership, and he made good by rejecting anything the Celtics threw up from the paint, including a couple of shots that should have gone down as goaltended baskets. Instead of taking a step or two backwards, the Celtics persisted in aiming higher and higher, like pitchers afraid to throw over the plate.
Johnson put his 12 years of NBA experience to use by applying his size to occasionally beat Rondo off the dribble. The suspension of Alston was further mitigated by the return of rookie Courtney Lee, who had missed Games 1 and 2 with a fractured sinus and made his debut heavily outfitted in a mask and headband, which seemed to have little effect as he provided 11 crucial points off the bench and even dived nose-first for a loose ball to tie up Rondo.
"We didn't get out to their shooters and we let Howard get down the middle,'' Pierce said. "When you give them the inside game and the outside game, you don't have a chance.''
Can the Celtics stop the inside-outside threat of Lewis (game-high 28 points) in Game 4 -- especially if Perkins is suspended? Van Gundy predicted they'll make a better try of it when he congratulated his players on their win by warning them to not celebrate. He wants them to focus on winning Game 4, as the Celtics surely will do.
Wouldn't it be a nice change to see two teams playing well at the same time?