Orlando Magic 96, Boston Celtics 92 (OT)

An adjusted pick-and-roll attack, largely effective defense, and an impressive effort led the Orlando Magic to a 96-92 overtime victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, preventing the Celtics from picking up a series sweep. Dwight Howard controlled the game on both ends of the floor from start to finish, scoring 32 points, grabbing 16 rebounds, and blocking 4 shots to help Orlando weather every Boston run. His pick-and-roll partner, Jameer Nelson, had by far his finest performance of the series. His 23 points, 5 boards, and 9 assists--he had just 7 of those in the first 3 games combined--more than offset his 6 turnovers and helped him become a difference-maker. He hit two three-pointers to score the first 6 points of the overtime period, helping the Magic get an early edge on Boston in the extra frame. The Magic got the win despite a horrendous showing from Vince Carter, who missed 8 of his 9 shots, turned the ball over 3 times, and sat out for defensive purposes late in a close game with his team's season on the line. Paul Pierce played a nearly flawless game for Boston with 32 points and 11 boards, yet his 6 missed three-pointers worked against his team. Ray Allen scored 22 and hit 5 treys, including 2 in overtime after some rather embarrassing defensive breakdowns by the Magic, who pulled Nelson and went with a three-guard lineup in order to switch every perimeter screen. The series returns to Orlando's Amway Arena this Wednesday for Game 5, in which the Magic's season will either end or become a bit more interesting.

Team Pace Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Magic 93 103.6 51.4% 27.0 22.9 20.5
Celtics 91 100.7 45.4% 30.3 23.8 17.5
Green denotes a stat better than the team's regular-season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's regular-season average.

Orlando got off to a fast start for the first time this series, and held a 32-26 edge at the end of the first period. In the first three games, Boston held a combined +22 edge in first-quarter scoring, and Orlando had to fight its way back (in Games 1 and 2) or roll over (Game 3). Tonight, it needed not play the catch-up game. Nelson accounted for 15 of the Magic's first-quarter points tonight via a score or an assist, so it's fair to say that he indeed drove a lot of their early success.

Boston, though, played some good ball of its own, and was poised to take this game despite some uncharacteristically stagnant offense. After Kevin Garnett earned a technical foul early in the third quarter for tangling with Howard, the Celtics responded with scores on their next 3 possessions--including a transition slam by Allen with Howard in hot pursuit--to draw within a point. And over an 11-minute span of the third and fourth quarters, they really locked down on defense, holding Orlando to 10 points--all by J.J. Redick--over 17 possessions and forcing 7 turnovers, going from a 64-62 deficit to a 76-74 lead. On both ends, it was a case of solid effort making up for at-times poor execution.

The Magic's offense, which has struggled mightily in this series, finally got on track tonight thanks to a worthwhile adjustment from coach Stan Van Gundy. As his brother Jeff, an ESPN analyst, pointed out during the telecast, Orlando sent staggered screens Nelson's way, which added another dimension to its offense. An initial screen from power forward Rashard Lewis on the wing would start the play, and then Howard would come over to set another screen for Nelson between the wing and the baseline. The small forward, either Carter, Mickael Pietrus, or Matt Barnes, would slide along the baseline from the strong side to the weak side to take away a help defender. Nelson could drive to the basket for a layup or dump the ball to Howard on the roll. Another option, one which worked well tonight, was to keep the dribble alive and pull the ball back out to the initial weak side. If Boston's defense blinked for even a second, Howard was open for a delayed lob. It's a gorgeous set that worked well against Boston's elite defense. Rest assured that Celtics coach Doc Rivers, and defensive assistant Tom Thibodeau, will watch plenty of film of those plays to figure ways to adjust, while Van Gundy can add another wrinkle or two.

Another change Van Gundy made? Playing Brandon Bass. Dissatisfied with the combination of Howard and Marcin Gortat at the power positions, which he's used in this series, he gave the energetic Bass some meaningful minutes for the first time this postseason. In 11 minutes, Bass scored 3 points on 1-of-2 shooting, grabbed 2 rebounds, and blocked a shot which the official scorekeeper did not tally. As usual, there's no faulting Bass' energy. Tonight, he impressed me with some solid work on defense, especially with a hard contest of a Kevin Garnett fadeaway jumper which Garnett drained anyway. I expect Bass to pick up a few more minutes in Game 5, and for my email box to fill up with more questions as to why Bass hardly plays.

Tonight was a picture-perfect example of how Howard has to approach the Celtics on offense. Though he still posted up 11 times, he also got involved by rolling to the basket and crashing the offensive glass; in other words, by moving. Expect to see more of that in Game 5.

His defense was key as well. He ended 4 of Boston's first 5 overtime possessions with either a block or a defensive rebound, keeping his opponent off the scoreboard and giving his team a chance to gain its footing. At the other end, he scored 4 points on 2 putbacks. Nelson's three-pointers got Orlando off to a good start in the period, but Howard's sticktoitiveness closed the door on Boston.

Ultimately, this game more resembled what analysts and media members envisioned when prognosticating this series: a close, back-and-forth, defensive struggle. Really, this game was also the closest Orlando's come to looking like the team that swept the first two rounds by clicking on all cylinders on both sides of the ball. The Magic still face impossible odds when it comes to winning the series--teams trailing 3-0 in best-of-seven playoff series are 0-96 in NBA history--but the point here is they played hard, smart, and with a lot of pride tonight with their season hanging in the balance. Down 3-0 and trailing by a point headed into the fourth quarter, on the road, plenty of teams might have just packed it in. But this Magic team made the plays it needed to. Even if the Magic had wound up losing in overtime tonight, at least they would have done so swinging, so to speak. It's a start. A late one, but a start nevertheless.

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