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Orlando Magic 113, Boston Celtics 92

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The Orlando Magic once again rode Jameer Nelson and Dwight Howard to victory, staving off elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals with an impressive 113-92 defeat of the Boston Celtics in a bizarre, physical game with plenty of ancillary storylines. Nelson scored a game-high 24 points on 88.8% True Shooting and dished 5 assists to lead Orlando's offense, while Dwight Howard contributed 8 defensive rebounds, 2 steals, and 5 blocked shots to lead the way for Orlando defensively; he also scored 21 points and grabbed 2 offensive boards. Some bizarre events depleted Boston's bench: starting center Kendrick Perkins, arguably the best "Howard-stopper" in the league, earned an ejection late in the first half for two iffy technical fouls and faces a suspension for Game 6 unless the league rescinds one or both of the technicals; Glen Davis, a key reserve big man, caught an elbow from Howard trying to defend him and became concussed; and backup swingman Marquis Daniels had to leave after bumping his head into Magic center Marcin Gortat's chest and picking up a concussion of his own. And though backup center Rasheed Wallace, who led Boston with 21 points on 97.6% True Shooting, left via a disqualification for 6 personal fouls, he had to retreat to the locker room for treatment of back spasms afterward. These occurrences threaten to overshadow what stands as one of Orlando's best playoff performances in the Stan Van Gundy era, as it scored a monstrous 113 points on just 85 possessions thanks to a 13-of-25 showing from three-point range. Improbably, given where this series stood just 3 days ago, the Magic can knot the whole thing up at 3 games apiece on Friday night at Boston's TD Garden.

Team Pace Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Celtics 88 105.1 47.9% 31.9 10.8 11.4
Magic 85 133.2 61.6% 40.6 31.3 16.5
Green denotes a stat better than the team's regular-season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's regular-season average.

The way the Magic played tonight and in Game 4 certainly makes one wonder where the heck they were in the first three games. Nelson's the sparkplug, as he has to be. It's as though a lightbulb flashed on above his noggin, as he's clearly figured out how to attack Boston's defense. Though Nelson is traditionally a halfcourt-oriented, pick-and-roll point guard, he has shifted into a different mode in this series, and is instead pushing the tempo aggressively whenever possible. On two occasions tonight, for example, he grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled the length of the court, and converted a layup attempt in heavy traffic as the Celtics' defense kept scrambling. He isn't content to walk the ball up and run a halfcourt set. No, he's getting the ball and making things happen with it, usually by dribbling into the paint for either a kickout or a shot attempt. He's not turning the corner on the pick-and-roll and picking up his dribble, looking for the open man. No, his dribble is live, his improvisation skills high, and his swag phenomenal. He has Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo on his heels. If he keeps playing this way, Orlando will be in great shape come Friday night.

So Nelson is part of Orlando's common denominator in its wins this series. Another has been hot starts. Nelson fueled a 31-point Orlando first quarter with 7 points and 4 assists, with 3 of those assists going to three-point shooters. Count Nelson's own trey among that group and Nelson's play directly led to 4 of Orlando's 5 first-period triples, and 18 of its points.

But it's not just Nelson. Howard's energy and effort level, on both ends of the court, appeared to stir his teammates. Though media types often call Howard's leadership and demeanor into question, he does not get enough credit for the way his hard play can inspire his teammates. I don't like to play pop-psychologist, OK, but I do get the distinct feeling that Mickael Pietrus wouldn't have managed to swat a three-point attempt by Paul Pierce at the 5:22 mark of the second quarter, and subsequently save the ball to Howard, had Howard not already blocked 5 shots of his own, many of them in spectacular fashion, including a "chase-down" rejection of a Rondo layup attempt after Rondo assumed Howard was out of the picture.

This game was a bit closer than the score might make it seem, however. For all its three-point bombs, Orlando led by just 8 points at halftime and 9 points at the end of three quarters. And for one stretch in the third quarter, it appeared as though the Magic had lost their legs, and that Boston was taking advantage. For example, Howard dumped in a tough righty hook after Matt Barnes' lost handle found its way into his hands. On the possession before that, the Magic had just 5 seconds to shoot after inbounding the ball under the Celtics' basket. The inbounds pass sailed over Nelson's head and cost him precious time, so he had to heave a deep three-pointer over Rondo in order to beat the shot clock. Which he did, giving Orlando a 74-65 lead. Good plays, and scores, but nothing sustainable. Boston could have made a run here.

But let me get back to the start of the fourth, where an unlikely hero emerged for Orlando. Rashard Lewis, he of the--yes, this figure again--$118 million contract and 7 points per game average in this series, carried the offense to start the fourth quarter and kept the lead from evaporating with the second unit in the game. On the Magic's first possession of the fourth, the ball swung to him on the right wing. He had enough time to square and shoot the three, but instead he put the ball on the floor with his left hand, attacked the basket, and floated the ball in. On the next trip, he drew a foul on Daniels and split the pair of three throws. After a few empty possessions for both teams, he again posted up, turned, faced, and sank a tough shot from the left baseline. The same thing happened on the next possession, giving Orlando a 91-78 lead at he 8:59 mark and prompting Celtics coach Doc Rivers to call timeout immediately. Lewis' 7 quick points gave Orlando some breathing room as its four other starters got some rest.

Really, it's tough to single out a Magic player as having a poor game. Trust me, Vince Carter's 8-point, 3-of-10 shooting line doesn't look good, but he played much better than that, with his aggressive drives to open the second half particularly standing out. And though a series of mistakes on both ends of the floor in the waning moments of the first half harms his overall impression, Brandon Bass' activity and engagement tonight really made an impact. What stands out the most, to me, was the lob he threw to Howard for an emphatic slam in the second period. Bass had elevated from the left baseline to shoot, but saw Howard available underneath and instead flung a line-drive to the front of the rim for Howard to flush cleanly. Bass isn't exactly known as a ball-mover, but he indeed displayed good awareness on that play, to say nothing of the excellent pass he threw. But both he and Gortat have to improve their defense on Wallace. They can't afford to leave him open, as they did on numerous occasions tonight. And Gortat has to cut the silly fouling from his routine. He gifted Wallace 4 points at the charity stripe by hacking him away from the ball with Orlando in the penalty.

So the series moves back to Boston, but despite the fact that the Celtics have dropped two straight, I don't buy the idea that they're feeling the pressure. I'll shamelessly quote myself from after Game 5 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, in which the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Magic to cut Orlando's series lead to 3-2:

The Cavs laid it all on the line tonight, as they had to, and for that you doff your cap. With that said, do not buy the line that the pressure is on the Magic to win Game 6, because they want to avoid a Game 7 in Cleveland. The latter part of the statement is true--they wanted to avoid a Game 7 tonight--but the former is not. The Cavaliers cannot afford to lose again this season. The pressure is still on them to win, and it really is that simple.

That line made SportsCenter, incidentally.

No, the pressure is still on Orlando, which cannot lose a game. The good news is that the Magic have historically delivered when they needed to under Van Gundy, with Game 3 of this series providing a notable exception to that rule. With Nelson and Howard dialed in like this, and role-players like Barnes (9 points) and J.J. Redick (14 points in 22 bench minutes) chipping in, they'll be in good shape. But don't expect Boston to lie down, either.

What we have now is a bit of a series, right?