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Orlando Magic 95, Boston Celtics 90

It wasn't pretty, but the Orlando Magic nonetheless managed to steal homecourt advantage from the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series, winning by a final of 95-90. Just 3:03 into the second half, Orlando led by 28 points. To no one's surprise, Boston mounted a furious comeback and drew to within 3 points with 6 seconds remaining in the game. Indeed, the Celtics managed to almost completely erase a 28-point deficit in just 20:51 of game time. However, a win is a win is a win, no matter the margin, and Orlando is happy with the "W," although not necessarily with the way in which it was earned.

Team Pace Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Magic 89 106.7 48.8% 19.8 15.9 14.6
Celtics 101.1 43.6% 28.2 23.3 16.9

This game gave fans of both teams eerie cases of deja vu: on March 8th, the Magic stunned Boston by jumping out to an 18-point lead at halftime and led by as many as 22 in the game. Tonight, the halftime margin was the same, and the largest lead was, as I previously mentioned, a robust 28 points. Orlando's crisp ball movement in the first half kept the Celtics' defense guessing. Boston had the look of a tired team, and when the Magic scored 13 points on their final 6 possessions of the first half--many of them on uncontested, driving layups--the game appeared to be well in hand.

The Magic's first-half defense, though, was even stronger. The Celtics tried to get Ray Allen open catch-and-shoot looks off screens, but neither J.J. Redick nor Mickael Pietrus ever yielded him enough room to get a shot off. With Allen not able to get it going, Paul Pierce and Glen Davis settled for lazy jumpers. A flurry of scoring from Stephon Marbury in the second quarter--sparked by dribble penetration, I might add--gave the Celtics a brief 30-28 advantage, but Orlando closed out the half on a 26-6 run.

Stop me if you heard this before: the Magic nearly squandered the lead in the second half because it began settling for long jumpers, rather than driving the ball to the basket. It's as though the teams switched offensive identities, except the Magic's second-half offense was even worse than the Celtics' in the first half. Credit the Celtics' defense, but also question why in the world the Magic failed to involve Dwight Howard in the offense in the second half. If he's not getting post catches or rebounding missed layups--dribble penetration is imperative here--he's not scoring.

In the third period, the Magic shot 8-of-19 from the field (5-of-13 on three-pointers), 3-of-6 from the foul line, and committed 4 turnovers. Indeed, they attempted two treys for every one two-pointer in the period, and while they lucked out on a few iffy attempts--here's to you, Mickael Pietrus--it was still a sign of possible impending doom. Howard scored 4 points in the period on 2-of-2 shooting. He needs to take more than 10% of the Magic's shots if they are to win, especially when the outside shots aren't falling. The fact that Boston, which attempted no free throws in the first half due in large part to its reluctance to drive the ball, suddenly became aggressive only made the Magic look worse: 16 free-throw attempts in the period for Boston, and 12 conversions. The Celtics only trimmed the Magic's lead by two points in the third quarter, but that fact alone does not account for how much sharper than the Magic they looked. This quarter, and not the fourth, is when the Celtics made their move.

The fourth quarter is not one fans of either team will want to savor. Sure, the game went right down to the wire, as just when it looked like the Magic would escape unscathed, Paul Pierce hit a three-pointer to give Boston a puncher's chance at a win, down 3 with 6 seconds remaining. But both teams squandered multiple opportunities to seize control in the period. Rajon Rondo, whose 14-point, 10-rebound, 8-assist line overstates his effectiveness in this game, played erratically and out-of-control, coughing the ball up 4 times in this period alone. And while I don't want to take a lot away from the Celtics, the fact that their comeback attempt was fueled in large part by a series of baffling plays should give them pause.

Perhaps the signature play of the game came after a clutch three-point play by Dwight Howard to give Orlando a 12-point lead with 3:25 to play. Boston consistently elects to "walk the dog" after it yields a basket, rolling the ball inbounds and not having its point guard touch it until it reaches midcourt. This strategy conserves precious seconds of game time, as the clock does not start until a player from either team touches the ball. In this instance, the Magic's Rafer Alston--perhaps of his own volition, perhaps at the instruction of coach Stan Van Gundy--dove at the ball and appeared to have it secured, in Boston's backcourt, with his team streaking toward the basket. Rondo wrestled the ball away and fired the ball ahead to a wide-open Brian Scalabrine on the right wing. Scal drilled the improbable three-pointer.

What I'm getting at is this: Boston did not make its comeback with precise offensive execution. If Rafer secures that ball, or if Rondo is called for a foul, Orlando could have put the game away then and there. Instead, something like that happens, and we have ourselves a ballgame.

Both teams know there's room for improvement. I imagine most of the chatter tomorrow will center around Orlando's near-disaster, and not on the fact that the Celtics trailed by 28 points to a lower seed in a home playoff game. That's fine. The real takeaway is that, as far as these teams are concerned, winning the first game doesn't mean squat. The Celtics lost their first game of this year's playoffs to the Bulls, while the Magic also faltered in their first outing against Philadelphia. Both teams figure to look much sharper in Game 2.

After the jump, assorted thoughts on the Magic's individual players.

After the jump, assorted thoughts on the Magic's individual players.

  • Rafer Alston played hard and did a mostly good job of staying in front of Rondo, but his offense still needs work. Too many missed floaters and too many turnovers (4).

  • Marcin Gortat was very productive in his limited stint, contributing 4 points and 1 rebound in 5 minutes. With Dwight Howard playing the entire second half, Gortat is not going to play very much unless Van Gundy decides to pair the two in the same lineup, which he has been reluctant to do. He needs to consider giving that lineup another shot, especially when Rashard Lewis needs a breather.

  • Dwight Howard simply needs more touches on offense. The Celtics are really keyed on him on the screen-and-roll, which makes it all the more important for the Magic to get into the lane and draw defenders away from Howard. Give him a chance to rebound a missed shot or to capitalize on his defender's over-helping. 22 rebounds and 3 blocks? I'll take it.

  • Anthony Johnson is not quick enough to guard Rondo, nor is he crafty enough to get by him on offense. When he's in the game, he really should play off the ball and give the ballhandling duties to Turkoglu. His lone bucket tonight was a wide-open corner 3-pointer off penetration from Turk. More of that, less of dribbling into traffic.

  • Rashard Lewis led the team in scoring with 18 points, but needed 18 shots to get there; he also went just 1-of-5 from three-point range. That said, the Magic must continue to feed him the ball on the left block when matched up against Scalabrine. He also needs to exploit his quickness advantage on Scal, and not wait too long to make his move. (Sure sounds like I'm talking about Dwight Howard, doesn't it?)

  • Mickael Pietrus scored a career-playoff-best 17 points and buried 3 treys, but his offense was really more of the same we've seen from him throughout the season: ill-advised jumpers. The chief difference is that they tended to go in tonight. I like his willingness to drive to the basket, and his (usual) ability to finish once there. His defense on Allen tonight was tremendous.

  • J.J. Redick handled Allen well, too. Nobdy had reason to doubt that J.J. would give his best effort in defending Allen, but they did have reason to doubt that said effort would be enough to limit the All-Star. Due in large part to Redick's diligence battling around screens, Allen shot just 2-of-12 from the field and 1-of-7 from three-point range. Redick iced the game for Orlando with four free throws in the final 13 seconds. Tremendous cool under fire from J.J. in those situations.

  • Hedo Turkoglu did a decent enough job staying in front of Pierce for most of the game, but appeared to tire late. His offense is what needs more work. 15 points for the Turkish Wonder on just 6-of-16 shooting. This rule applies to the whole team, but especially Hedo: Fewer contested jumpers, more drives to the basket.