Game 2 - Eastern Conference Finals
Celtics 95, Orlando 92 - Celtics lead series, 2-0
After losing 17 home games during the regular season, one of them to the lowly New Jersey Nets, how greatly a year of basketball has changed.
After losing seven of their last 10 regular-season games, how fully the Boston Celtics have changed.
After being viewed as old, creaky, and all those other adjectives regularly applied to once-great teams past their prime, a bunch of basketballers from Beantown have gotten healthy, found their legs, and rediscovered a winning formula nobody thought they'd find.
It's a fountain-of-youth springtime in Boston, with the waters of renewal running straight through the Sunshine State of Florida. Two games into the Eastern Conference Finals, a 2-0 series exists, but the team with the two-game lead is not the team that swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs. It's not the team that crushed the Atlanta Hawks in four games by a total of 101 points. It's not the team that compiled a 14-game winning streak, hadn't lost a game in roughly a month, and produced a 28-3 record in the 31 games preceding the start of this series.
No, the Orlando Magic, after storming through the Hawks and the Charlotte Bobcats, are suddenly on the wrong side of a series that - while not over - is on the verge of being done if something doesn't change quickly and drastically. In just two games at Amway Arena, Boston has regained swagger and self-assurance, but most importantly, the Celtics have regained the most important thing of all: supremacy in the Eastern Conference.
After the wreckage of one of the most dissatisfying 50-win seasons ever produced in the history of professional basketball, the 2008 NBA champions - now two years older and far more physically frail - limped into the playoffs with little identity and no real sense of how they were going to perform. Coach Doc Rivers' club did beat Miami in five games, but the Heat were truly a one-man team. Cleveland, on the other hand, had one superstar with some degree of quality in the Cavs' supporting cast. Boston found enough defense and toughness to make that supporting cast look bad, and when the C's began the Summer of LeBron far earlier than anyone anticipated, they certainly elevated their standing in the NBA community.
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Still - Orlando was supposed to be the toughest nut to crack. The Magic's ownership of a formidable big man, Dwight Howard, plus an army of deadeye 3-point shooters was expected to give the older, slower Celtics some problems.
Instead, Boston's defensive rotations are frustrating Orlando and driving Stan Van Gundy's guys into a state of madness.
In Game 2 on Tuesday night, the Magic were better than they were in Sunday's Game 1 train-wreck, but they still couldn't crack the Celtics' defense when it mattered. The team that romped through the past two months of play scored just two points in the final 3:35. More alarmingly for the favored Orlando squad, this game was decided by the kinds of goofs that shatter a locker room's sense of confidence.
With 31.9 seconds left and Boston leading, 95-92, Vince Carter - the man Orlando acquired when Hedo Turkoglu left town - stepped to the line for a pair of foul shots. Carter has created many visually pleasing highlights throughout a decade-long career, but he hasn't won championships in large part because he's come up short in crunch-time situations. With his team in a must-win game, Carter had a chance to pull Orlando within a point and set up a one-stop-plus-one-score finish that would knot the series heading to Boston for Saturday's Game 3. A win, and the Magic would head north with a full boat of confidence. It had to start with two made foul shots.
Instead, Carter missed both, in a scene eerily reminiscent - for Magic fans, at least - of Nick Anderson's foul-line failure in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets. In many ways, the Orlando franchise took 14 years to recover from that pair of misses, because that's the length of time which separated the Magic's two appearances in the Finals. Intent on getting back to the Finals for a third time, Carter's misses stood in the way.
So did a few more blunders in the final few seconds.
After Boston's Kevin Garnett missed a 20-foot jumper with seven seconds left, Orlando's J.J. Redick - who, ironically, has been this team's best and most consistent player through the first two games of this series - failed to call an immediate timeout. This lapse forced Orlando to inbound the ball from backcourt with 3.5 seconds left, instead of getting an automatic advancement to the frontcourt with roughly six or seven seconds to go. The Magic's ensuing set play didn't create a great shot, but guard Jameer Nelson tossed up a 42-foot prayer with two seconds left on the clock when he could have dribbled and earned a face-up 30-footer just before the buzzer. The 42-foot heave didn't even draw iron, and the Celtics prepped for a happy plane flight - and three off days - with a two-game stranglehold on this series.
Just like everyone predicted before Game 1 started, right?
Pro Basketball Fans Senior Staff Writer
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