In the NBA these days, few sights are more welcome than Orlando lined up on the opposite end of the court awaiting tipoff. After all, the Magic have the worst record in the league. The only better scenario would be facing Orlando as it played the second of back-to-back road games.
Well, last night was the Celtics' lucky night. The Magic arrived in Boston straight from being beaten in Indianapolis. The Celtics could not have conjured up a better opportunity to reverse their recent FleetCenter futility.
From the beginning, it was clear Boston would not waste its opportunity, establishing a double-digit advantage in less than four minutes. The Celtics never trailed as they defeated the Magic, 101-93, earning their ninth home win and their first since Dec. 21 against the Sixers, before 13,286 fans. In a season increasingly filled with adversity and distractions (the latest being the three-game suspension imposed on Vin Baker Tuesday night), the Celtics (18-19) gladly got through the game with relative ease.
"It feels good to get that monkey off our backs," said Paul Pierce (19 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, 9 turnovers). "We lost three in a row at home, but finally we took care of business and that was what we needed to do. This was a must-win. If we let this one slip away, then we don't want to be a playoff team. After losing to the top three teams in the East [at home], we played against the bottom team in the league and we had to get this win. Hopefully, we can build on this, even though it is Orlando."
The Celtics set the tone in the first quarter. In marked contrast to Monday night's offensive struggles against the Pistons, they came out ready to rack up points. Boston rarely missed a jumper in the first quarter, shooting 64 percent. When Mike James nailed a 3-pointer with 7:08 left in the quarter, Boston took a 17-6 lead.
But most impressive was the way the Celtics moved the ball, collecting 12 assists on their first 16 field goals. The opening quarter finished with the Celtics ahead, 36-29.
"Right now, it is not there for us," said Tracy McGrady (28 points). "We're digging ourselves much too big a hole. You can't let teams score 36 or 40 points in the first quarter. You are going to lose a majority of games when you do that. We just need to get a win and see if we can build from that."
Although the Magic twice closed within 6 points in the fourth quarter, the Celtics never suffered any monumental collapses. Boston led by as many as 18 points (90-72) and remained in control the whole contest with one of its more consistent efforts of the season, withstanding a late 14-2 Orlando run that featured three 3-pointers by McGrady. Down the stretch, Boston ratcheted up its defense and got to the line to secure the win.
"The Celtics played a good basketball game and they made plays down the stretch," said Orlando coach Johnny Davis. "We kept closing it, but they kept giving an answer to our runs. We got ourselves into a deficit early and tried to climb back. We had it cut down to 10 going into the half and talked about making it a game at that point. But when it didn't get from 10 down to a game and it went from 10 to 18, it made things challenging."
The Celtics shot 50 percent, though they did get too comfortable in the fourth (4 for 13 from the floor with five turnovers). But Boston can usually count on its fourth-quarter defense and that was again the case as it held Orlando to 29 percent (8 for 28) in the final period. The Magic shot just 39 percent overall.
Although the Celtics' proficiency from the floor dropped slightly from the first to second quarter, they still played well enough to take a 60-50 lead into halftime. Orlando cut its deficit to 5 points when Lee Nailon tossed in a layup early in the second. But Boston responded with an 8-0 run that reestablished its double-digit lead, 42-31, with 9:32 remaining until halftime. Ricky Davis accounted for 6 points during the spurt, while Chris Mihm capped the run with a 4-foot hook shot. A dunk by Mark Blount on the fast break pushed Boston ahead by a first-half-high 15 points (50-35).
"It was a good effort by our basketball team at both ends of the court," said coach Jim O'Brien. "We kind of jacked it all around in the fourth quarter and that's not good, but it was a good solid win to get within one game of .500."