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Game 4: What to watch for

05.10.09 at 3:21 pm ET

Is it too much to suggest that the Celtics are playing for their season tonight in Orlando? Probably, if only because two of the next three games would be back at the Garden, but NBA history is not kind on teams who find themselves down three games to one. Only eight teams have been able to pull off the trick and the Celtics would do well to avoid trying to be the ninth.

After finding so much success with a smaller, quicker lineup back in Boston, the Magic adjusted in Game 3 using rookie Courtney Lee as a counter and moving Rashard Lewis to the post where he took advantage of his size and scoring touch. Not even Dwight Howard’s foul trouble slowed down the Magic onslaught.

The Celtics caught a huge break when the NBA decided not to upgrade Kendrick Perkins‘ Flagrant 1 foul, but that was about the only thing that has gone right for them in Florida.

“It’s so easy for us to fall back on being tired, injured, all the that stuff,” Doc Rivers said. “But nobody cares about that. You’re on the floor and guys have to play. We have a chance to do some great things if we set our minds to it.”

How can the Celtics regroup? Here are three things to watch for tonight.

1. It starts with defense

When Rajon Rondo is able to penetrate the defense, the Celtics become a much better team. In order for him to do that the Celtics have to get stops. The Magic finished the season with the best defensive efficiency rating in the league and in the halfcourt they are very tough to score upon, which the Celtics found out the hard way in Game 3.

“It’s tough to get Rondo in the open court when the other team is scoring every time down the floor,” Rivers said. “We’ve got to stops first. Our offense is secondary to our defense.”

It will be interesting to see how Magic coach Stan Van Gundy uses his point guards tonight. With Rafer Alston out of the lineup, veteran Anthony Johnson was able to break down the Celtics defense and initiate Orlando’s offense. But Van Gundy and Johnson got in an argument at the end of the third quarter and Van Gundy kept him on the bench. Both player and coach say there are no residual hard feelings, and if Alston struggles early, Johnson has shown he can be a valuable asset in this series.

The other thing for the Celtics to worry about is what to do with Lewis. They have tried Big Baby Davis and Brian Scalabrine at times and both have had some success, but they have also been torched at times. There are no easy answers for guarding Lewis since he can shoot over the top of both players. Lewis may prove to be an insolvable problem for the Celtics, but overall their  defense has to be better tonight, because it’s never been worse than it was in Game 3.

2. Spacing the floor

At times Ray Allen has been like a great control pitcher who loses control of the strike zone. With Allen you keep expecting the next shot to go down and be the one that gets him going. He has not had great looks in this series, but they haven’t been all that bad either.

To that end, Rivers emphasized to his big men the need to set better screens to get Allen (and Paul Pierce for that matter) more room to get off their shots. That can be tricky because Perkins has been known to get in foul trouble setting picks. Eddie House carried the Celtics offensively for most of the game and it’s asking a bit much for him to continue his torrid shooting pace.

Pierce was able to get going late in the game by taking advantage of mismatches in their high isolation sets and getting to the free throw line. That’s the Celtics preferred set down the stretch of close games, but it’s tough to play that way for very long.

3. A few silver linings in a very dark cloud

There are three stats in the box score that generally tend to indicate if the Celtics have played well. The first is rebounding, and while the Magic had a 36-29 edge on the boards in Game 3, that number is a bit deceiving because of all the Celtics misses and all of Orlando’s makes. A far better indicator is Rebound Rate (or rebound percentage, if you prefer), that is the percentage of defensive rebounds a team gets.

Orlando missed 27 shots and the Celtics grabbed 23 of those misses and allowed just three offensive rebounds. That’s a rebound percentage of 88 percent, which is very good. Orlando’s rebound percentage was 85 percent, so that was generally a wash, but the takeway is that the Celtics have done a good job of controlling the glass in this series and not giving Dwight Howard easy second-chance baskets.

The other numbers to watch for the Celtics are assists and turnovers, and they recorded 24 assists against 14 turnovers, which is a decent return.

The problem, again, was Orlando’s shooting percentage (59 percent) and Boston’s (43 percent), which was such a great disparity that it makes all the other numbers practically meaningless. It’s simple but it really comes down to making more shots and getting more stops, if not in that order.

4. The refs

Joey Crawford is the lead official tonight, and has been noted before, Crawford is one of the referees visiting teams like to see because he is not easily influenced by the home crowd. The other officials are Greg Willard and Bill Kennedy. As you may recall, Kennedy and Rivers have a history. It was Kennedy who threw Rivers out of a regular season game in Chicago and the fallout resulted in the referee’s union filing a grievance against the Celtics coach. It was also reported during the Bulls series that members of Kennedy’s family were seen leaving the arena dressed in Bulls gear.

The feeling in the city of Orlando is that the Magic have not been afforded any respect by the league office after the NBA decided not to suspend Perkins. (Seriously, you can’t go anywhere without people telling you that the Magic get no respect). All of which puts the refs under a microscope tonight. Again.

There seemingly hasn’t been a single playoff game without some officiating-based controversy with the latest coming last night in Game 3 of the Mavericks-Nuggets series. Late in that game with the Mavericks up by two points and having a foul to give, Antoine Wright tried to commit an intentional foul against Denver’s Carmelo Anthony. The refs let the play go on and Anthony buried a 3-pointer to give Denver the win and a 3-0 series lead.

The NBA admitted that the officials made an error. Here’s the statement from Joel Litvin, NBA president of league and basketball operations:

“At the end of the Dallas-Denver game this evening, the officials missed an intentional foul committed by Antoine Wright on Carmelo Anthony, just prior to Anthony’s three-point basket.”

Is it too much ask for a controversy-free game tonight?

5. As Rondo goes…

Without a post-up game and with Allen and Pierce’s shooting fluctuating so wildly, the key to the Celtics hopes tonight, and possibly even their season, comes down to Rondo. When he attacks (and when is able to attack) the Magic don’t have an answer for it. When he is passive (or when he is forced to play in a half-court set) the Celtics become very guardable.

Rondo has vaulted into the national spotlight with his play during the playoffs and he’ll need to do it again.

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