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As Celtics slip, is Boston becoming Choke City?

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By Michael Wilbon
Friday, May 28, 2010

Since the most accomplished team in baseball, the New York Yankees, were the very first to blow a 3-0 series lead in the game's history, it's probably fitting that the Boston Celtics, the most decorated team in pro basketball, are perilously close to becoming the first to blow a 3-0 series lead in NBA history.

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Down 0-3 in the Eastern Conference finals last weekend, Orlando Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy said that at some point some team was going to come back from a three-game deficit. Van Gundy was plotting a way to stop the streak of automatic 3-0 losers in the NBA playoffs at 93 straight. It seemed ludicrous . . . until the Magic won Game 4 in Boston, then crushed the Celtics in Game 5 back in Orlando. And now, the series swings back to New England for Friday night's Game 6 with the Magic enjoying the momentum shift if not total control of the series.

For the first time in the series, the real pressure is on the Celtics, down to their final home game. And the tension can be felt throughout New England. Six years after the gloating over the Red Sox' historic achievement of coming from 3-0 down in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees, Boston is about to become Choke City. Just a few weeks ago the Big Bad Bruins won the first three games of their series with the Philadelphia Flyers and led 3-0 at home in Game 7 only to lose in regulation to Philly, which is now in the Stanley Cup finals.

The Celtics are now on deck and to say they look shaky going into Game 6 might be an understatement. "Big Baby" Davis suffered a concussion in Game 5 from a Dwight Howard elbow that left him on the hardwood looking like a boxer crawling around the ring searching for his mouthpiece. Davis is questionable for Game 6. The Celtics say Rajon Rondo (muscle spasms) and Rasheed Wallace (back spasms) are fine and will play. Marquis Daniels also suffered a concussion. Kevin Garnett looks hurt again, like he's running in quicksand. The best news the Celtics have heard since Saturday is that the second of the two bogus technical fouls called against Kendrick Perkins was rescinded by the league on Thursday, meaning he has six technical fouls and not seven this postseason and therefore will be eligible for Game 6.

Perkins is both the most effective defender the Celtics have to combat Howard and one of those players who drive officials nuts because he's never been whistled for a legitimate foul in his life, to see him react. Still, the double technical foul is a particularly lazy device the NBA needs to dump. You'd think the Celtics would shut up and play, because it's rather easy to make the case that the two technical fouls charged to the Celtics in Game 4 (one against Garnett, one against -- surprise! -- Wallace) were the difference in a game that went to overtime.

Anyway, Perkins's presence in the second half wasn't going to enable the Celtics to win Game 5; Orlando outplayed Boston in too many areas. In fact, getting Perkins off the floor in the second quarter might have saved him and the team, given the injuries that ensued. As Ray Allen said emphatically before the Celtics headed home, Game 6 is really Game 7 for Boston. Game 7, if the series comes to that, is going to be historic.

And the panic here in Boston is palpable. How unlikely that one city can be involved in the historic comeback/collapses in three major team sports, and two all-time downers in one month's time. So much for the euphoria that gripped the city when it appeared the Celtics would get another shot at the nemesis Lakers in the Finals.

Perhaps the only person who wasn't particularly cocky about the Celtics' 3-0 lead was Coach Doc Rivers, who in a conversation before Game 4 talked about the weird nature of his veteran team, one that behaved in some ways more like a team of neophytes. "It's been challenging in that way," Rivers said. "This is not a typical veteran team. It's a strange veteran team. The Lakers can win some games in cruise control. We didn't win a single game in cruise control all year. Whenever we get comfortable we lose it. We're an older team and usually older teams can play well at a comfort level. [But] We're not that team. We have to have an unbelievable focus to play well. . . . In that way, it's as challenging a group as I've every coached."

And that's what Rivers said before Game 4. It wasn't that he could sense a collapse coming, but that he didn't trust his players to put their foot on Orlando's neck, figuratively.

And because they didn't, because the Celtics couldn't score on that one measly possession at the end of regulation in Game 4, the series lives. The Magic figured out how to get the ball to Howard on the move so he could use his quickness against the stronger Perkins. Van Gundy figured out he wanted to get J.J. Redick and seldom-used Brandon Bass more minutes, really meaningful minutes in Redick's case now that he's shooting as if he's back at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Rashard Lewis is feeling better now that he's shaken a virus. Jameer Nelson figured out that it was up to him to aggressively drive into the lane to draw defenders away from his shooters.

This is why I always go back to a 1985 conversation with Magic Johnson during which he hammered into me the notion that a team that goofs around when up 3-0 in a series is taking on risk -- risk of a sprained ankle or a suspension for too many technical fouls or risk of one of your best players slumping (Garnett).

As quickly as the Celtics lost what appeared to be their playoff basketball superiority, the Orlando Magic got its groove back. The Celtics are still one win from advancing to the NBA Finals but suddenly it feels like the two teams are moving to a pair of Game 7s, and the team with all the championship banners hanging from the ceiling, 17 of them, is somehow up 3-2 but nonetheless seems behind. The pressure now is on everybody, which is exactly what playoff basketball ought to be.


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