BOSTON -- This game wasn't about what it means for the current series as much as what it means about the next one.
No team has ever lost a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series, and the Boston Celtics remain highly unlikely to become the first -- even after losing 96-92 in overtime to Orlando in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals Monday.
Instead, the big takeaway is that the weaknesses exposed by this defeat could leave the Celtics vulnerable in the next round. Additionally, it's hard to write it off as a bad night when these are the same problems that plagued Boston in the regular season.
For starters, the Celtics' offense went into a funk late in the game, continuing a season-long pattern of fizzling down the stretch. Boston lost the fourth quarter to Orlando for the fourth straight game, scored only 39 points in the second half, and produced only six in the five minutes of overtime.
Boston also had an appearance from Regular Season Rasheed, as backup center Rasheed Wallace missed all four of his 3-point attempts and picked up a costly fourth-quarter technical, a huge play in a game decided in overtime. Kevin Garnett also picked up a T in the third quarter for playing patty-cake with Matt Barnes, although this one at least fired up the team (Boston went on an immediate 6-0 run) rather than deflating it.
The rest of the bench wasn't much better. Glen Davis couldn't reenact his Game 3 heroics, and Michael Finley and Nate Robinson were invisible in their limited stints. Tony Allen, meanwhile, struggled at both ends in his 12 minutes after strong efforts in the first three games, and it appears his ankle problem might be getting worse.
Finally, one wonders whether a Boston team that has never lacked confidence let that overflow into hubris at times. The Celtics resorted to too much one-on-one and too many forced shorts from players trying to do it themselves, most notably some attempts by Paul Pierce down the stretch -- he missed his last eight jump shots, the majority of which were contested.
With all that, they had a chance to win the game at the end of regulation. Boston had three timeouts but opted not to call one -- a fair strategy, given that Orlando would be able to substitute in better defenders at the timeout. However, the Celtics might have reconsidered when they failed to execute the play correctly and Pierce ended up trapped near the left wing as the clock ticked down.
"We had a play drawn up; we didn't execute it all," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. It was a screen-and-roll for Pierce with Ray Allen as the screener, and the other three teammates were supposed to stay on the baseline and space the floor. Instead, "Half our team was standing next to Paul," Rivers said, and the play ended with Pierce losing the ball as the buzzer went off.
"It was going to be anybody but Paul at that point," said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. "He had been tremendous."
After the play, it seemed Rajon Rondo was upset with Pierce, who indeed was tremendous and finished with 32 points, but seemed to take too much on his shoulders late. Ray Allen didn't mince words afterward, either.
"Each guy feels like they can make the shot to win the game for us," Allen said. "Sometimes that's been at our team's detriment. So sometimes pulling back for all of us, like you come off, you have the ball, just swing it. Sometimes I might have a shot, but Kevin might have an easier one. Just plays like that. The unselfishness out there on the floor. When we're great, that's what we do.
"Nobody was purposely trying to dribble out the ball or take the last shot or do it all by themselves. Sometimes you get in the heat of the moment and you see a play and you try to make it. We just always have to remember to use each other."
One other move the Celtics might lament is starting Kendrick Perkins at the beginning of overtime. Perkins didn't make a field goal in 27 minutes despite being completely unmolested on the perimeter, leaving Boston's other players to go 4-on-5 offensively. The Celtics didn't score in overtime until Perkins came out with 1:59 left.
"Dwight [Howard] was starting to dominate a little bit," Rivers said. "So we wanted to get some size in there. The problem is on the other end right now, they're not guarding Perk, and with Rondo not going [well] tonight, we needed another offensive player on the floor."
Of course, there was another team playing, and the Magic played by far their best first quarter of the series while submitting their most energetic four quarters.
"The first time in the series we actually made it tough on them," Van Gundy said.
There's no guarantee that any of the factors from Monday's game will hold up for Game 5 in Orlando on Wednesday, but there's another one that also might trip up Boston. The Celtics were looking at having as many as nine days off before the Finals started if they had won tonight. Now there's a strong chance they'll need until Game 6 on Friday, which would leave them only five days of rest -- and add two more games of wear and tear -- before the Finals.
That's still plenty of rest, of course, but the Celtic's maladies are mounting. The right-handed Perkins' already limited offensive repertoire has been further constrained by a sprained right wrist (not to mention shoulder and knee problems). He now appears unwilling to shoot the same 15-foot jumper he stroked easily on the first play of Game 1 in Orlando.
Tony Allen was so limited by an ankle problem that Boston has worked out Robinson extensively in his place during practices this week. Rivers turned to Robinson for a brief cameo, taking Allen out of the game, and that might be a bigger story in Game 5.
And Rondo went to the locker room late in the first half for something vaguely described as "muscle spasms." Whatever it was, it might have contributed to Orlando's Jameer Nelson getting the better of the point guard matchup for the first time all series. Rivers went as far as saying that Nelson dominated the game. (Oddly, Rondo heard "MVP" chants while at the free throw line in the middle of the fourth quarter. At the time, he had eight points).
None of these issues are likely to derail Boston's quest to dethrone the Magic as the Eastern Conference champions -- although it will subject them to 48 hours of nonstop chatter about their TD Banknorth Garden co-tenant, the NHL's Boston Bruins, who lost a 3-0 series lead to Philadelphia a week ago. Boston still has a home-court date in Game 6 in which it will be heavily favored, plus two other opportunities to clinch it in Amway Arena in Games 5 and 7.
But for the first time since a blowout loss to Cleveland in Game 3, the Celtics have shown some chinks in their armor. Although it probably won't cost them in this series, they'll have to get the proper repairs made if they hope to prevail in the Finals.