A single game can be a microcosm of an entire year. However insignificant it may seem in the grand scheme of an 82-game regular season (in this case, a 66-game lockout season), a single game on an idle Thursday night in Orlando can tell you what a team is all about. Hours are spent in training camp and in practices only to be whittled down to the 48 minutes of basketball between the lines. Sometimes, it's not even about the X's and O's of the game. It's not about plays or sets or schemes. It's about heart, guts, and that brotherhood that players share as they grind out those grueling seconds, minutes, games, and seasons together. That was in full display on January 26th, 2012.
The Celtics were in Orlando on the back end of a home-and-home with the Magic. Three nights before, they destroyed Orlando in the Garden. Minus Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo, Boston flexed the defensive muscle that had made them so successful over the last couple of years and held Orlando to under 25% shooting and only 20 points in the second half. The Magic scored a franchise low in points and field goals for the entire game.
Going into Orlando, the C's were 7-9 and just trying to get their head above water. Another win wouldn't even get them to .500 and after the first half, it didn't look like it was going to happen anyway. Orlando raced out to a 58-37 halftime lead and it looked like that Celtic defense that had flummoxed the Magic in Boston never even boarded the plane to Florida. And then it happened. The Celtics turned a once 27-point deficit into a "bar fight."
KG Pumped Up After Comeback Win (via NBA)
Paul Pierce was The Truth and poured in 24 points and 10 assists. Unlikely contributor E`Twaun Moore was a perfect 4-for-4 from beyond the arc. After being traded from Orlando for Glen Davis, Brandon Bass scored 10 points in only his second game as a starter. It wasn't pretty, but the Celtics showed that championship resolve that had eluded them all season. It wasn't just another "W" in the win column. The players will tell you that, that the bottom line is that you get the win and nothing carries over to the next. But we know that's not true. Nobody saw it at the time, but the significance of the game was massive.
Both Orlando games were a coming out party for Avery Bradley. With Rondo sidelined, AB showed that he could affect the outcome of a game without being a playmaker on offense. His on-ball defense on Jameer Nelson became a weapon that Doc Rivers would use throughout the season. It catapulted the second year guard into more playing time which lead to a confidence and development of his offensive game and later, replacing Ray Allen in the starting lineup.
It was also the first game against an elite team that featured Kevin Garnett at center and more importantly, against the premier center in the league, Dwight Howard. He held DH12 in check with only 16 points, but there's also the game beyond the game. Talking to reporters afterward, Howard said, "we've got to change. We have to change what we do, and guys have to know their roles and do it. That's just the bottom line." You could see the wheels slowly coming off the entire franchise after that loss. Stan Van Gundy was doing his best Stan Van Gundy impression while the team imploded. The rest is history. Howard would waiver for the remainder of the season about signing an extension, ownership fired Otis Smith and SVG later that summer, and Orlando would trade Howard to the Lakers for spare parts and draft picks.
No, it wasn't just that one game that forced the Orlando Magic into a rebuild, but it didn't help. The domino effect was irreversible and for Boston, it ignited an improbable run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. In many ways, I'll remember this season more fondly than the championship run 2008 because the Celtics showed so much character in the face of overwhelming circumstances. They were depleted by injuries that robbed their rotation of four main contributors and still took the eventual champs Miami Heat to the brink. For a franchise that sportswriters and critics were already chalking up as over-the-hill, that comeback game of the season sparked the comeback season of the franchise.