You're going to hear an awful lot about how "different" last night's Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals was compared to the first three games, all the way up until Game 5 tips off tomorrow evening. When someone mentions how "different" things were last night, they're probably referring to the more aggressive mindset the Magic brought to the show, along with a lack of late-game execution on the part of the Celtics. But there were certainly other factors that contributed to last night's loss. Such as:
A Less Efficient Paul Pierce: Paul was the model of efficiency over the course of the first three games of this series, taking a pedestrian number of field goal attempts, and hitting at least half of them in each game. Throughout Game 4, on the other hand, he was much less conservative, going off for a series-high 25 field goal attempts and making just 11.
Game 1: 6-8 FG (75 percent), 2-3 3-PT FG (66.6 percent), 8-10 FT (80 percent), 22 points, 9 rebounds
Game 2: 8-16 FG (50 percent), 3-7 3-PT FG (42.8 percent), 9-11 FT (81.8 percent), 28 points, 5 rebounds
Game 3: 6-12 FG (50 percent), 2-4 3-PT FG (50 percent), 1-2 FT (50 percent), 15 points, 9 rebounds
Game 4: 11-25 FG (44 percent), 0-6 3-PT FG (0 percent), 10-13 FT (76.9 percent), 32 points, 11 rebounds
Pierce will probably take a fair amount of heat for the final play in regulation, when the C's couldn't even muster a shot at the rim, along with his two missed three-pointers in the waning seconds of overtime, with his team down four points. Should the Celtics have called timeout at the end of regulation? They seemed to run the play they wanted regardless (a pick-and-roll for Pierce and Ray Allen, with Ray fading to the left wing), and while Ray might have seemed open off his flare to the left side, Pierce was still heading right, and basically got too far along on the right wing to hurl a cross-court pass which would have had to sail over both a recovering Vince Carter (who stumbled through a screen set by Kevin Garnett), and Dwight Howard, who, stationed higher up in the paint off of Garnett, was in a decent position to try and pick off the pass. Disaster really struck with about three seconds left, when Pierce tried to cut back left with a between-the-legs dribble, lost the handle, and then had to deal with Jameer Nelson going for the loose ball. Had he maintained his dribble, he might have been able to force what would have been a fading three-pointer - not exactly a high percentage shot, to say the least.
People will criticize Pierce left and right, but don't forget that he also kept the C's in the game throughout the fourth quarter. Remember when Glen Davis got on a mini-roll midway through the fourth quarter? He took a charge on Vince Carter with 8:03 left, then hit two straight buckets? Pierce assisted on both of them. But you're more likely to remember Pierce's drive down the middle of the lane with 2:15 to play, which culminated in him throwing it down with the right hand, which cut into Orlando's seven-point lead. Then, with 1:16 left, and the Celtics down three, Pierce drove left on Carter, laid the ball in, drew the foul, and converted the free throw, notching things up at 86. While Pierce might be an easy scapegoat in this one, don't forget that he actually kept the Celtics in the game in the final minutes of regulation.
Jameer Nelson Unleashed His Inner All-Star: Nelson was an integral part of Orlando's success last night, largely due to his aggressive nature, highlighted by a steady storm of drives into the paint, a flurry of lobs for Howard to throw down, and a number of passes to open shooters along the perimeter. Along with his hard-earned 23 points last night, he also handed out a series-high nine assists, which trumped his previous three-game total of seven.
Game 1: Two assists
Game 2: Four assists
Game 3: One assist
Game 4: Nine assists
Toss in his back-to-back three-point bombs midway through overtime, which gave Orlando a 92-86 lead, and he stood alone as a one-man wrecking crew at times.
Orlando's Unlikely Trio: Who would have thought heading into last night that the combined production of Brandon Bass, Rashard Lewis, and Matt Barnes would help push the Magic over the top? Bass didn't even touch the court until the final minutes of Game 3, but a thundering dunk seemed to get Stan Van Gundy's attention, so he inserted Bass late in the first quarter last night. Lewis, on the other hand, finally had a "breakout" game, tallying a series-high 13 points to go along with five rebounds. He hit two of his three three-point field goal attempts, after hitting just one of 13 through the first three games. And then there was Barnes, who brought an unprecedented scoring touch to the fray last night. He hit two threes early in the first quarter, and finished with a series-high 10 points.
Lewis, Barnes, and Bass in Games 1, 2, and 3 combined: 27 points.
Lewis, Barnes, and Bass in Game 4 last night: 26 points, 14 rebounds.
What Happened to the Bench?: The second half of Doc Rivers's rotation (Rasheed Wallace, Glen Davis, and Tony Allen) was instrumental in the Celtics obtaining their 3-0 series lead. They scored, they rebounded, they hustled, and they played stellar defense at times. Last night there wasn't a whole lot to celebrate.
Bench Points in Game 1: 25
Bench Points in Game 2: 18
Bench Points in Game 3: 38
Bench Points in Game 4: 12
It wasn't just the scoring that was the issue, though. It appeared to be the bench brigade's mentality in general, which had served as a strong point of theirs earlier in the series. Rasheed Wallace was chucking up airballs and picked up a technical with 10:30 left in the fourth quarter, which definitely broke Doc's no fourth quarter technical fouls rule. Tony Allen could only muster two points, while committing four fouls. And while Davis might have scored four important points midway through the fourth, where was his overall impact through the first three quarters? He was so effective with 17 points in Game 3 because he was contributing throughout the entire game.
The Magic Weren't Exactly Rondo'd Last Night: Perhaps the muscles spasms got to him, or his early foul trouble took him out of any sort of rhythm he was hoping to develop, or fatigue is beginning to set in (42 minutes per game through the first three games, including 46 in Games 1 and 2), but Rondo wasn't his usual self last night. He was close to his second straight double-double with nine points and eight assists, but few of his points and assists were definitively impactful last night, with the exceptions being his assists on two of Ray's final three three-point field goals in the fourth quarter and overtime. Which leads us to...
A Lack of Ball Movement: The Celtics managed just 19 assists last night (17 through the first four quarters), with Rondo accounting for just eight of them. The Celtics recorded at least 20 assists in each of the first three games of this series. Against the Cavaliers, the Celtics (and Rondo), had consistently high assist numbers, but both the team and Rondo have seen those numbers shrink somewhat against Orlando. Take a look:
Team Assists Per Game vs. Cleveland: 23.0
Rondo's Assists Per Game vs. Cleveland: 11.8
Team Assists Per Game vs. Orlando: 20.75
Rondo's Assists Per Game vs. Orlando: 9.0
So, why the difference? Personally, I chalk it up to Paul Pierce serving as Boston's primary option on offense throughout this series, as opposed to Ray Allen battling Rondo for that role against Cleveland. Ray relies on Rondo to get him the ball once he gets open after curling around all of those screens, while Pierce thrives taking a basic entry pass on the wing and going to work himself, which often stops the ball from moving. I don't want to say Ray's scoring is dependent on Rondo's passing, but it seems clear at this point that Rondo's more likely to record an assist when looking for Ray, as opposed to Pierce, and that comes down to the differences in their games and how they score the ball. But with Pierce working through so many isolation situations throughout this series, there's bound to be a dip in overall ball movement, and that definitely occurred late in the game last night and the Celtics suffered because of it. It might be a give-and-take of sorts, seeing as the formula worked through the first three games of the series, yet seemed to come back to bite them in Game 4. And is it a coincidence that the only points the Celtics scored in overtime last night came off of two Ray Allen three-pointers, which came on the heels of some sort of ball movement (both shots were assisted)?
Through the first four games of this series, Pierce has scored 97 points, but only 29 of those points have been assisted, which measures out to just 29.9 percent. Compare that to Allen, who's scored 65 points through the first four games of the series. Of those 65 points, 41 have been assisted, which comes out to 63.1 percent. There's clearly a difference between how Pierce and Allen score, and perhaps this stat shows how much each relies on ball movement for his respective scoring. One other interesting stat: Of the 29 points of Pierce's that have been assisted, 21 of them have come via three-point nation. All seven of Pierce's three-pointers this series have been assisted.
Howard's Explosive Night: Besides his 6-14 performance from the free throw line, Dwight Howard played very, very well last night, tallying 32 points, hauling in 16 rebounds, and rejecting four of Boston's shot attempts. One of the biggest differences, especially later in the game, was Orlando's pick-and-roll action between Howard and Nelson. Rather than sticking Howard down on the block and expecting him to go all Kevin McHale on the Celtics, Orlando had him screen for Nelson between the free throw line and the top of the key, and when he rolled to the hoop, it opened things up for him, allowing him to basically be an athlete, and throw down lob passes from Nelson, and clean up on the offensive glass (five offensive rebounds last night). So, rather than relying on Howard to be an effective low post scorer in the traditional sense, Orlando adjusted and created a way for him to score based around his natural talents as a freak athlete.
So, yes, while the Magic certainly brought a much more aggressive mentality into last night's actions, all of these factors played a significant role as well. The good news is, if you're a Celtics fan, Orlando made all of these adjustments, and the C's still had opportunities to win in both regulation and overtime. Hopefully last night's loss will bring everyone back down to Earth a little bit, and the C's will head back to Orlando focused, primed to earn that trip back to the NBA Finals.