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Boston Celtics 109, Orlando Magic 106

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The Orlando Magic hung pretty tight with the Boston Celtics in an exciting, nationally televised Martin Luther King Jr. Day affair, but Boston executed better down the stretch and came away with a 109-106 victory as a result. The Magic, who have lost three of their last four games by a combined 7 points, all on the road, got game-bests from Dwight Howard, with 33 points an 13 rebounds, but couldn't come up with enough stops against a balanced Celtics offense which had six players score in double-figures. Ray Allen scored half of his 26 points in the final period and accounted for all three of Boston's three-point makes, while Kevin Garnett returned after a nine-game absence to contribute 19 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals, including a game-clinching pick of Jameer Nelson's pocket with 15 seconds to play and Orlando trailing by just 3 points.

Orlando won't lose many games when it sinks 11 three-pointers at better than 40 percent, as it did tonight, but its lax defense cost it the game. Jason Richardson will certainly go under the microscope for his lapses, particularly in the fourth quarter. He plowed through a Garnett screen on a missed three-pointer by Allen, giving the veteran big man two free throws with 1:05 to play which proved to put Boston in control for good. On the Celtics' next possession, Richardson fouled Paul Pierce on a long two-point jumper attempt--which he canned, of course--to spot the Celtics an additional point, putting them up by three with 38 seconds left.

But as always, it's unfair to place the blame for a loss squarely on one player. Richardson will bear a lot of scrutiny, but he's hardly the only one who struggles to fight through Boston's screens trying to check Allen. Maybe J.J. Redick, who's more experienced defending Allen, will get the call next time, but Richardson's more explosive offense was needed late in a close game. Further, Richardson alone can't stop the Celtics' brilliant passing on the interior, which led to plenty of easy Boston buckets early on as it raced to a 15-6 lead in the game's first 4:51.

Team Pace Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Magic 86 122.9 53.4% 36.5 35.1 15.1
Celtics 84 129.9 62.1% 31.4 22.2 14.3
Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.

If you're Orlando, you can't feel too terribly about this loss, as you didn't learn too much new about your team. The positive--and I understand the Magic, who fancy themselves championship contenders, don't give a rip about "moral victories"--is you managed to take the East's top team at the NBA's halfway mark to the final minute in their building. The defense has to improve, sure, but you at least demonstrated you have enough offense, more than enough offense, to challenge Boston on a nightly basis. Howard keys that, as his 33 points against single coverage attests, but the Magic also had four more players score in double-figures. Efficiency is the greater issue. Richardson missed his first five shot attempts before warming up in a major way after halftime, going 5-of-9 from the floor to close the game for 14 points. Ryan Anderson and Brandon Bass, Orlando's power forwards, combined for 29 points on 9-of-15 shooting, with Anderson drilling his first four three-point tries to shoot Orlando back into the game in the second period.

The lack of perimeter offense, though, proved costly. Hedo Turkoglu shot 4-of-11, Gilbert Arenas went 2-of-6, and Redick connected just once in four tries from the field. Those three will need to get it going against Boston in the future, and there should be little doubt, based on their track records, that Turkoglu and Redick are at least up to the challenge.

Orlando may need to revise its approach on that end of the floor, particularly to start games. Turkoglu and Richardson got hot in the second half, and one wonders if they might have done more with additional chances before intermission. Bass tends to look for his shot all the time, really, but especially to start games. Though gifted as a scorer--it's his best skill, and the biggest reason he earns a healthy NBA paycheck--I think he needs to recognize he's the Magic's fifth option as a starter, with Howard, Richardson, Turkoglu, and Nelson serving as options 1 through 3-B, respectively. He used four shooting possessions in his first stint on the court, which spanned from tipoff to the 4:31 mark of the first period. To his credit, he tallied two assists as well, but he needs to look to pass more often, and settle for jumpers less often, when with the four starters. I'm fine with him letting it fly with the second unit, though.

It's interesting, then, that coach Stan Van Gundy played Anderson over Bass in the game's final period. Anderson grabbed three key offensive rebounds in that stretch, rewarding Van Gundy's trust, and one went to Richardson for a go-ahead three-pointer. The other two didn't turn out so well for Orlando. With the game knotted at 102, Anderson hauled in a long trey attempt from Richardson and tried to flip in a hook over Glen Davis' stout interior defense. Howard grabbed that miss, but Davis rejected his putback offering as Boston's defense converged. Here, Anderson should have reset the offense by kicking the ball out to Nelson or Turkoglu to run more clock, getting a better look.

The second was equally important, as he chased a Turkoglu miss into the right corner and swung the ball to Nelson, with Orlando trailing by three and 26 seconds to play. The Magic could have eaten almost all the clock to set up a tying three, or played for a two-pointer if it availed itself. We'll never know what might've happened, as Garnett poked the ball away from Nelson as Orlando's point guard tried dishing the ball to the top, sealing victory for the hosts.

But those plays only get more attention because they came in the clutch. Any combination of two made field goals or two defensive stops would have won this game for Orlando. I have a hard time getting too worked up about this loss, if I'm honest. We'll have a better idea of where the Magic stand in relation to the Celtics when they next meet February 6th. Until then, the Magic have to hammer out the kinks, especially defensively.