Ray Allen scored 25 points, Paul Pierce had 22 and the Boston Celtics used smothering defense to beat the Magic 92-88 on Sunday in the Eastern Conference finals opener.
Rasheed Wallace added 13 points as the Celtics built a 20-point lead, then held on late to snap Orlando’s 14-game winning streak.
Vince Carter had 23 points and Jameer Nelson finished with 20 for Orlando, which cut the lead to two in the final seconds but simply ran out of time, looking rusty after a six-day layoff. Dwight Howard was limited to 13 points and 12 rebounds, nowhere near the dominant force the Magic need to win a title.
Game 2 in the best-of-seven series is Tuesday night in Orlando.
Two years removed from an NBA title, the revived Celtics might be a little grayer and perhaps a little slower than their paralyzing defense of old. But, healthy again, maybe not as much as some once thought.
“We’re old. So I think a lot of our guys during the regular season with the injuries and stuff, it was very difficult,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s tough to work on your defense when guys don’t practice. It’s tough to practice when you only have eight guys at practice.”
The Celtics built a 15-point lead in the second quarter and watched it fizzle with Howard on the bench. Backup Marcin Gortat had two layups and a dunk to help the Magic end the half with Boston ahead 41-32.
Nelson had two quick 3-pointers and another jumper to start the third, moving the Magic within three points. Then it all unraveled.
The Celtics went on a 22-5 run later in the quarter to go ahead 65-45, and a crowd littered with blue and white T-shirts — deafening at times with noise clickers and claps — was silenced. But the Magic rallied late to cut the lead to three with 26 seconds remaining in the fourth on a dunk by Howard.
After Pierce made two free throws, Carter was fouled driving to the hoop. He made the first, then missed the second intentionally as Nelson swooped in for the tip to make it 90-88. But Allen followed with two free throws with 6.1 seconds left to seal the Celtics’ victory.
“We played hard in the paint,” Allen said. “We forced them to take shots from the perimeter, but we always got a hand up in their face.”
The Magic’s run simply ran out of time, even if the Celtics seem to be turning back the clock.
Showing no signs of age, the Celtics outhustled and outmuscled the Magic at every step defensively. They pushed and pulled their way around the paint, slowing Howard for most of the game.
That bruising Boston basketball frustrated the Magic and their Superman, emotions pouring out all over the court. Howard and Wallace got tangled up in the third — one of many times in this one — and were whistled for double technicals after swinging their arms away.
The sweat pouring from their faces, Kevin Garnett and Co. stifled the Magic as well as anyone in these playoffs, holding them to 32 points in the opening half. A Celtics team that downed LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the last round seems as rejuvenated as ever, ready to give the Magic, who swept through the first two rounds, their toughest test yet.
Rivers can sleep in his own bed no matter where the games are played in this series. Rivers, a former Magic coach who makes his permanent home in the Orlando area, said he’s had plenty of phone calls and messages the last few days, many from friends who are local Magic fans. “Some of my friends right now are wavering on their support of the Celtics,” Rivers said, chuckling. … The only time the Magic had fewer points at the half this season came against Boston on Christmas, when Orlando was held to 27. … Utah Jazz F Carlos Boozer and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris were among those in attendance.
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