The Celtics aren’t going to rack up many easy wins this season, but they made Friday’s victory a lot more difficult than it had to be.
Up by six points less than three minutes to go, the Celtics suffered a series of breakdowns that nearly cost them the game. The fact that they survived was a testament to their scrappiness — and to the fact that the Magic also are not very good.
The Celtics’ biggest mistakes came in the last 30 seconds, when they held a four-point lead and merely had to execute to earn their second win in a row. When the Magic inbounded the ball with 38 seconds left, the Celtics had to prevent one of two things: a quick two or a 3-pointer. They did half the work.
With some nice pressure defense near the halfcourt line, the Celtics forced the Magic to burn 14 seconds off the shot clock. The quick two was off the table. All the Celtics had to do was defend the 3-point arc, since even a layup would not have been fatal in that situation. So when Arron Afflalo drove to the hoop with about 28 seconds remaining, the Celtics could exhale a bit.
Only they didn’t exhale. They contested the layup, as they should have, but Brandon Bass got too aggressive and was whistled for the foul as Afflalo’s shot dropped through the net. Just like that, the Magic had the three points they needed without having to take a difficult three.
A few possessions later, the Celtics had weathered the storm and had a three-point lead with four seconds on the clock. The Magic had the ball, thinking three. At all costs, the Celtics had to prevent the Magic from getting a decent look at a three.
They gave them a decent look at a three.
Again, Afflalo had the ball in his hands. Again, he hit the shot, fading to his left from the corner and taking a shot that nestled into the net. By all rights, it should have been a game-tying three, just to teach the Celtics a lesson. But a video review confirmed that Afflalo had stepped over the line, meaning the Celtics escaped.
Gerald Wallace played decent defense, but he fell for a shot fake by Afflalo that let the Orlando guard get free, and Bass did not close out like he should have in such a situation. In essence, the Celtics executed in the clutch like a team that was winless at the start of the week.
That’s a long-winded way to saying, yeah, the Celtics won — despite themselves.
Sandwiched between a rough start and an error-filled ending, the Celtics made their hay with dominating second and third quarters. Courtney Lee spearheaded the effort with 11 points in the second as the Celtics outscored the Magic 54-44 over that span.
The biggest factor in the Celtics’ mid-game push wasn’t Lee attacking the basket or improved ball movement — although both of those helped — but simply taking care of the ball. The Celtics committed only three turnovers in the second and third quarters combined, between five in the first quarter and three in the fourth quarter.
Protecting the ball enabled the Celtics take the lead despite getting beaten on the glass for much of the game. They were outrebounded 17-8 in the second quarter and gave up five offensive rebounds, but thanks to committing just one measly turnover, they were able to close the gap to three points at halftime after falling behind by 15 points early on.
Jeff Green had another quiet fourth quarter, although the victory will mute most of the criticism of the Celtics’ star or the team’s inability to get him going when it matters most. Green scored two points in the fourth quarter and took just three shots. A rebound was his only other contribution to the cause in six fourth-quarter minutes.
Yet the Celtics were able to succeed without Green having a huge scoring performance thanks to their balanced offense. Six Celtics scored in double figures with nobody scoring more than Bass’ 16 points. By contrast, Orlando’s scoring was much more centralized; only Afflalo, Nikola Vucevic and Jameer Nelson cracked double digits, and Afflalo led all scorers with 23 points.