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Rob Peterson

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Defending champs show some mettle

By Rob Peterson,
Posted May 13 2009 8:33AM

BOSTON -- They had faced bigger deficits in these Playoffs. But in Game 5 on Tuesday, the Boston Celtics gazed into a chasm that was not only deep, but wide.

Down 77-63 with 8:29 left, the Celtics saw their postseason lives flash before their eyes. The 14-point hole wasn't as daunting as the thought of visiting Orlando and facing elimination in Game 6.

Then again, these are the defending champions we're talking about. In this postseason, they have yet to find a difficult situation from which they can't extract themselves. Maybe Celtic great Bob Cousy could lend this team his nickname: The Houdinis of the Hardwood.

Using a point guard picked off the scrap heap midseason, a second-year forward starting in place of an All-Star and their championship-level defense, the Celtics stormed back. They closed the game on a 29-11 spurt to stun the Magic and take a 3-2 Eastern Conference semifinal lead. Boston is 32-0 all-time when leading 3-2 in a series.

And if those numbers weren't daunting enough, the Magic may be facing a huge abyss of their own: one between their All-Star center and their coach. In his postgame press conference, a quietly frustrated Dwight Howard verbally elbowed Stan Van Gundy by questioning the Magic's strategy down the stretch.

"I think defensively, we didn't pressure like we did when we built the lead," Howard said, "and offensively we didn't do what we did to get the lead. We have to recognize when we have a lead instead of trying to burn the clock out.

"We just need to move the ball and that is the reason we were winning with five minutes to go. We moved the ball, we ran, got easy shots and our coach has to recognize when he has a certain group out there and they are getting the job done and we have to leave those guys on the floor."

That group -- Howard, backup point guard Anthony Johnson, shooting guard Mickael Pietrus, small forward Hedo Turkoglu and power forward Tony Battie -- did push the lead to 14 in the fourth.

But whether Howard's assessment is accurate and whether it will cause any further psychological damage to a team that has seen two winnable games -- two wins that would have put them in the conference finals against the Cavs -- slip from their grasp remains to be seen.

What is certain is that any finger-pointing (especially from the face of the franchise) won't help the Magic focus on beating Boston in Game 6 Thursday.

Maybe Van Gundy should have played the hot hands and trusted the guys who had helped the Magic build that late lead.

On the flip side, maybe Van Gundy thought he could trust the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year (Howard), the 2008 Most Improved Player (Turkoglu) and a 2009 All-Star (Rashard Lewis) to seal the deal.

"I thought we played really well for 44 minutes," Van Gundy said. "[We had an] eight-point lead with four minutes to go and we just quit playing. We quit playing the game that had got us there. We look like we were trying to run the clock out, walking the ball up the floor, playing half court.

"We haven't had success playing that way, but that's how we decided to play it."

The Magic need to refocus quickly, because if Game 5 is any indication, they can lose their focus quickly as well. After pounding the Celtics on the glass, in the paint and from outside for 3 1/2 quarters, the Magic wilted under the withering defensive pressure applied by the Celtics and the offensive push applied by Stephon Marbury and Glen "Big Baby" Davis.

Davis, who hit the game-winner in Orlando on Sunday, didn't have one knockout blow in Game 5. Instead, his jab (steps) and hook (shots) led to eight fourth-quarter points that helped soften the Magic's middle.

Marbury gave the Celtics a circa-2003 postseason performance, scoring all 12 of his points in the fourth quarter to help keep the Celtics close before Doc Rivers -- like Van Gundy -- lifted a hot hand and replaced him with a starter. But Marbury gave the Celtics what they needed -- a couple of defibrillator paddles right to the heart.

"I thought Stephon Marbury and Big Baby in that one stretch kept us alive," Rivers said. "And then, the tough call for me was then going back with the starters.

"And you know, I just thought that they knew the stuff better down the stretch. I thought it was going to be a game of execution down the stretch for us. So, that's why I did it."

So, both coaches made the same moves -- putting the starters back in -- and in the end, the Celtics executed better than the Magic did, especially on the defensive end.

Unlike Game 1, where they built a 28-point lead and held on for a five-point win, tonight Orlando found out that a lead half as big wasn't nearly good enough. The Magic went 5:32 of the final 5:39 without scoring -- eight consecutive possessions.

The play-by-play sheet had a lot "missed" on the Magic side. Nowhere in the play-by-play did the words "opportunity" appear, but the Magic knew they let another one get away.

"It's not going to be perfect every night," Howard said. "But when you have a big lead against a team like Boston, [in the] fourth quarter, on their home court. You have to bury them, keep the crowd quiet."

But the Magic couldn't keep the crowd or the Celtics' starters quiet for long. Paul Pierce made a tough layup to cut the lead to four. Ray Allen looked ready to break out of a series-long slump after finally finding some room, but found a cutting Kendrick Perkins for a layup to cut the lead to two.

Then Allen hit his second 3-pointer of the game from the same spot he drilled the game-winner in Game 2 against Chicago in the first round. This trey also gave the Celtics a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

Yet, the game would not be complete without controversy. With the shot clock winding down and 36 seconds to go in the game, Rajon Rondo hoisted a 30-footer that looked as if it went 29-feet, 10-inches. As the horn went off, the Celtics immediately started to signal that the ball hit the rim. The refs conferred and concluded, yep, it did. Celtics ball with a new 24 and the Magic's hearts broken anew.

"I thought it was way short," Van Gundy said. "You guys can watch the film as well as I can and write it."

That one play, however, didn't lose the game for the Magic. It was just one of many which contributed to a loss, a defeat which could very well pave the way for the Magic to start their summer early.

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photoNightly Notable - Rudy Gobert
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