Without a doubt, tonight the Celtics faced their toughest match-up of the season to date. The 8-2 Orlando Magic boast a very productive starting five: Dwight Howard has improved his scoring average while remaining a rebounding beast; Rashard Lewis has thus far silenced the naysayers who wondered about his max value contract by giving the Magic the scorer that they needed; Hedo Turkoglu, reminds the casual NBA fan who utters "Hedo who?" that he is a pretty nice all-around player (18ppg, 6rpg, 4apg);
Jameer Nelson has added nearly 2.5 assists per game to his ledger; and Keith Bogans has become a real three-point specialist (60 of his 77 field goal attempts have been threes). But as with the new look Celtics, the real story may be the Magic defense, as they are holding teams to 41.8% shooting, second in the NBA to…….well, if you don’t know to whom, you need to turn in your CelticsBlog ID card right now.
Howard started tonight’s game showing off his array of moves (some improved, some brand new): a left-handed half-hook (which Kevin Garnett goal-tended), a missed right handed post-up of Kendrick Perkins, and a dunk on a feed by Nelson. Conversely, the Celtics looked very rough, producing several ugly turnovers: Perkins posts in the lane and proceeds to dribble the ball with every part of his body except his hand; Rondo impersonates a foal taking a pratfall with a wide open path to the hoop in front of him; and Ray Allen gets stripped while going to the basket.
The Magic jump out to a quick 9-2 lead and Doc Rivers calls a timeout, replacing Rondo with Eddie House. The results are mixed: the bleeding slows, but House immediately has his jumper from the corner blocked and the turnovers continue. Bogans and Nelson are looking like all stars, and the Magic are clearly setting the tempo, getting the shots and match-ups that they want.
Howard looks like he has ramped up his defense as well as his offense, blocking two shots in the quarter and establishing a clear presence in the lane on several other shots. Ray Allen can not hit anything and has two turnovers in the quarter. Pierce and Garnett try desperately to keep the Celtics in the game. Unfortunately, several bad fouls, bad turnovers (seven in the quarter), poor shooting and a complete inability to stop the Magic characterize the Celtics worst opening quarter of the year, down 28-17.
The carnage continued into the second quarter. The fouls come fast and furious at both ends of the court. The Celtics pick up their fifth foul only three minutes in with three, shall we say, questionable calls on Tony Allen. The quarter is typified by a series about halfway through in which Brian Scalabrine grabs Howard’s shirt and gets shoved in return, followed by lots of yelling at the refs and players angrily milling about. The play ultimately results in a PF on Scalabrine and technicals on Garnett and Howard. By the end of the half, the Celtics have amassed a staggering 17 PFs and the Magic 10.
The Celtics manage to keep the Magic within range for most of the quarter, but in the last few minutes the Magic start to pull away. The one bright spot of the quarter is Rondo who scores 14 pts on 6 for 6 shooting from the field, including three jump shots. There is a scary moment where Rondo goes down hard on a spectator’s chair after being fouled and does not get up right away. Fortunately for the Celtics, he is able to shake it off and even makes both of his foul shots. At the end of the half, the struggling Celtics are down 58 to 41, their biggest deficit of the year.
Rondo continues his solid play into the third and Pierce his aggressive drive and finish game, including traditional three point plays on consecutive possessions. Orlando’s lead extends to twenty before the Celtics finally start to respond and reduce the point differential. A Garnett tip following Rondo’s first miss brings the C’s within ten at 77-69, and the Magic call a time-out. Trevor Ariza travels coming out of the timeout and Pierce hits an elbow jumper to bring the Cs within six. Lewis responds with a drive for two points, and a foul and free throw bring the gap back to nine.
Rondo immediately turns the ball over, and Ariza hits a jumper to bring the lead back to eleven. A Pierce foul shot makes it ten, then Garnett picks up his fourth foul on Howard with 1:05 remaining, and the Magic lead is back up11. But the Celtics continue to slice away at the lead, and House hits a two-point jumper at the buzzer to cut the lead to seven at 83-76. The Celtics achieved what they had to: they brought this game within reach going into the fourth quarter.
Energy is high at the start of the fourth. The lineup to start the quarter is Rondo, Posey, Tony Allen, Pollard, and Pierce. After a nice third quarter, the Celtics shooting struggles return. However, they keep fighting for points. After a nice steal and dunk by Tony Allen with just under 10 minutes to go, it’s a 4 point game. At 6:34 House hits a three pointer bringing it to a two point game. At six minutes Pierce goes to Posey who buries a three, giving the Cs their first lead of the game.
The bizarre foul calls continue, generally favoring Orlando (Tommy Heinsohn is not just being Tommy tonight, the league should look and see if Tim Donaghy snuck into the building). At five minutes Turkoglu hits a three and the Cs are down 5 points again. Doc calls a full time out. The gap vacillates between one and six points until Posey gets his sixth foul (called by the prepubescent ref of this questionable crew) and is out of the game. With two minutes left, the gap is back down to two points.
After hitting jumpers all game, Rondo hesitates when he is wide open with 1:38 left, dribbles right, and causes a three second call because his teammates assumed he was going up with the shot. Ugh. Tony Allen does him one better on the next possession putting the ball on the bottom of the rim on a wide open lay-up following a nice pass from Pierce. At 1:28 Nelson hits two free throws, and Orlando is up by 4 points. But the Celtics continue to hang in there and with 15 seconds left, it is back to a two point game.
Garnett takes the intentional on Lewis to stop the clock, putting him out of the game with his sixth foul. Lewis hits both of his free throws, bringing Orlando’s lead back to four. After another timeout, Ray Allen buries a three point shot closing the gap to one with 7.7 seconds left in the game. Pierce fouls Rashard Lewis on the in-bound pass. Lewis misses the first shot and hits the second, leaving 7.2 seconds on the clock. After some inbound foul ups with the official timer, Pierce calls for the ball from Rondo and misses a deep three.
Thus ends both the game and our visions of an 82-0 season. Final score Magic 104-102. The Celtics fought the good fight, digging their way out of a twenty point third quarter deficit. But, in the end, the magic was with Orlando tonight.