By Rob Peterson, NBA.com
Posted May 18 2009 7:54AM
BOSTON -- Who knows when the Orlando Magic finally realized if they played a complete 48-minute game that they were a taller, healthier and more talented team than the Boston Celtics.
It could have been on the plane ride home from Boston after Game 5, in which they blew a 14-point fourth quarter lead. It could have been in the swirling media storm created by Dwight Howard's comments after Game 5. Or it could have been down the stretch in Game 6, when they roared past the Celtics for a season-saving win after being down 10 in the third.
Regardless of when the Magic had their epiphany doesn't matter. What is most important -- and somewhat surprising -- is that they had it some time before they lost this series and not in the summer when it is too late.
At the most improbable of places and at the most improbable of times, the Magic played their best and most complete game of the series -- and possibly the 2009 postseason -- when they dethroned the defending champs 101-82 on their home floor in Game 7 to advance to the Eastern Conference finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers (Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
"We've been talking about it all series," Howard said. "We have learned some tough lessons this series. There have been some games when we were up big, but we stopped playing, and tonight, we didn't want to learn a lesson in a loss.
"I think this is the happiest I have seen coach after a win or a loss. So it just feels good."
That coach, the one Howard sniped at after that disastrous Game 5 loss but made peace with before Game 6, knew how huge this win was for the Magic.
"When you have a team and an organization that has never been up 3-2 in a series and lost, when they're 32-0 in that circumstance," Stan Van Gundy said, "to come in and get a Game 7 by 19 on the road is about as big a win as you could have."
It was huge for all the reasons Van Gundy listed. It was also large because most teams need to lose a series of this magnitude before they realize that they could have won it.
Fortunately for the Magic, it only took a couple games for the lesson to take hold.
"We learned from the past games," Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu said, "especially those games where we had the 15-, 20-point lead that we lost. We learned from that. We battled, we executed in the half court, keep attacking, keep making good decisions and playing the game.
"It's how you become a good team."
If you think Turkoglu made it sound easy after the game, he made it look easy during the game. Excellent throughout, Turkoglu was at his series-clinching best just after the Celtics cut the lead to 90-78 in the fourth quarter on a Ray Allen 3-pointer with 4:20 remaining.
After a 20-second timeout where Van Gundy tried to make sure his team didn't go into "Here-we-go-again" mode, Turkoglu made sure the Celtics would get no closer. First, Turkoglu drained a 3-pointer for the top of the key. Then, he sank a silky jumper from the corner. Finally, he found Rafer Alston in the corner for the Magic's 13th and final 3-pointer of the game.
The tables had turned. Instead of having their spirits crushed, the Magic dispirited the defending champs.
"I thought our defense was good for 18 seconds," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, "and then they make a three with two seconds on the shot clock and get a runner with one second on the shot clock.
"And honestly, I thought towards the end it broke our spirit because they were fighting so hard."
All of which goes back to playing a complete 48 minutes. Tonight, Turkoglu provided that spark.
"The whole thing with him, to me, is his energy level," Van Gundy said of Turkoglu. "He is such a skilled guy that he's going to play well. When his energy level is high, his skill level is so high, that when he's playing with high energy, he is a great basketball player and that's what he was tonight."
And when Turkoglu is a great basketball player, the Magic are a great team and in Game 7, they were. They clobbered the Celtics in every facet of the game. They had 26 assists on 36 field goals, they hit 13-of-21 3-pointers and they choked the life out of the Celtics' offense by holding them to .392 from the field.
Ray Allen finally broke out of his series-long slump with 23 points on 9-for-18 from the field, but Paul Pierce couldn't find the rhythm as he clanked nine of his 13 attempts.
In turn, the Celtics were a great team last year when they won the NBA title. This postseason, with Kevin Garnett in a suit and not suiting up, the Celtics fell short of greatness. It's not as if they didn't have moments of playoff greatness -- that first round series with the Bulls is an all-time great -- but they needed to be perfect against the Magic in Game 7.
Every errant shot, every bad pass, every missed free throw and every missed rotation or assignment on defense chipped away at the Celtics' championship armor and, in the end, their season. Game 7 in Boston used to be the Celtics' time. Not so this time.
"I think from the jump we didn't have that energy that we had [in prior Game 7s]," Celtics forward Brian Scalabrine said. "The crowd was great today. They got behind us. We just never got that spark where we can make that big run.
"I think that was the difference between all the Game 7s here in Boston and tonight."
The other difference -- no KG. The Celtics survived Game 7 against the Chicago Bulls, but the Bulls don't have the Magic's frontline. Make no mistake, not having KG in uniform hurt the Celtics. It affected their substitution patterns, it limited how many fouls the Celtics' bigs could waste on Howard and it took away any intimidation factor. Still, the Celtics wouldn't use KG's absence as an excuse.
"Without him, you know, it's tough," said Glen Davis, Garnett's replacement in the starting lineup. "I filled his spot and I'm not using no excuses. The opportunity was there for me to close and I didn't close to get us there to the [conference] finals.
"Just something I got to look at and look back on and this summer use as motivation to work even harder because the opportunity is always there."
But what of the Celtics' future? The Big Three of Garnett, Pierce and Allen aren't getting any younger -- or healthier. Garnett should have surgery on his right knee this offseason. After the game, Garnett, who didn't speak to the media during the postseason, was seen in a hallway. As some media approached, KG headed out of the building. Want to talk? Nope. Or rather, not much.
"I look forward to seeing you guys next year," Garnett said over his shoulder.
Realizing he had forgotten something, KG make his way back past the group. Again, someone asked a question.
"I look forward to seeing you guys next year," Garnett said again.
And that was that. Garnett walked back toward the Celtics' locker room, his ailing right knee causing him to limp slightly, with nothing but the summer in front him.
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