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BOSTON -- The Eastern Conference finals did not end Saturday night, but you'll be excused for extrapolating that they pretty much did. On the one hand we have an absolute machine of a team operating on all 12 cylinders (yes, we know that the most powerful engines are typically V-8s, but there are vehicles made by Rolls-Royce, Ferrari and others that ratchet it up another four cylinders), and on the other hand we have a team on the wrong end of a steamroller, having already been flattened into the pavement.
"They just riddled us," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said, heaping the blame on himself for not having his team better prepared.
Where to begin?
Well, the beginning is about as good a place as any, because that was the only time all evening when what is turning into a joke of a series was not yet a laugher. And even then, things didn't stay close for long.
The Magic missed their first four shots, and it was 12-6 with 4:14 left in the quarter -- that's right, the Magic had six points by then, when the goofy smile Dwight Howard was wearing in the locker room before the game was wiped away.
Fast forward a couple of possessions to when Kendrick Perkins got the ball in the low post with three Orlando defenders within an arm's length of him. Perkins went up and shot the ball, and that was the only thing that went up. All three Orlando defenders kept their arms at their sides, and Boston had its first double-digit lead, 16-6 -- an edge that would end up holding up for the rest of the night.
The onslaught continued as Ray Allen poked away an entry pass to Howard and Paul Pierce knocked down an open 3 at the other end. The Celtics swarmed the Magic on the next possession and forced Jameer Nelson to fire up a 3 that missed as the 24-second clock sounded, and Kevin Garnett came down and drilled a 20-footer.
It was 21-6 then, and they could have gone ahead and thrown the Gino dance on the Jumbotron right then and there.
Never thought I'd write this, but the Magic looked every bit as bad as the Atlanta Hawks did in their Game 3 meltdown en route to getting swept in the second round.
In Orlando's defense, at least this debacle happened on the road. But as Van Gundy harped on afterward, there really is no defense for coming up with such a no-show when the stakes were so high.
Boston's defense is looking as dominant as it did in the 2007-08 championship season, and the offense is far more crisp than it was then. On one particularly impressive Celtics possession, the ball changed hands eight times before Garnett drained a 20-footer. But if there was one play that epitomized the difference in hustle and effort from the two teams, it came midway through the second quarter after the Celtics had already doubled up the Magic, leading 34-17. The ball got poked away in the frontcourt and Jason Williams ran to retrieve it in the backcourt, only not quickly enough.
Rajon Rondo slid in and swiped the ball away, then managed to pounce back onto his feet and drop in a layup on which Williams didn't even leave his feet to defend.
"Several hustle plays all went their way, they were a step ahead on every play, they outcompeted us, and that particular play was just indicative of what was going on all night," Van Gundy said. "What's most disappointing to me was that I didn't have them ready to compete. It starts with me, it's my job, I'm the coach, and I'm not happy about what I did tonight -- my plan, my adjustments, my everything."
Though he flogged himself afterward, Van Gundy addressed the team privately in the locker room after the final horn with team president Bob VanderWeide and general manager Otis Smith present, and didn't just speak about this particular debacle, but what it represented in the bigger picture.
Was this, he asked, the legacy these players wanted to leave for this organization after so many of them had worked so hard for so many years to build a team that was the favorite to win the championship just a little more than a week ago?
"I wouldn't call it a conversation," Van Gundy said. "I don't think we stayed with the fight very well, and we went sideways mentally.
"And there were a lot of guys in that room that have built this team to where it is, a contender that has gained respect, and that game tonight -- not just the score , but the way it went -- it's disappointing because that's not who we are and what we've worked to become. And between now and Monday, there needs to be a lot of soul searching and pulling together, because the normal reaction is to try to escape, and to try to escape blame, and it takes mentally mature people to bounce back and show who we are.
"But if we don't have that kind of toughness, we shouldn't be here anyway."
We'll see if they bring it Monday, but they certainly didn't Saturday.
Perhaps the Magic should start with a little thing, such as putting some hands up on defense. Because once it became clear they didn't have the energy to do even that in Game 3, this one was over before halftime arrived.