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Healthy Celtics hoping to have Magic's number

By Frank Dell'Apa
Globe Staff / March 25, 2009
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The Celtics have been able to focus on the next opponent, rarely straying from that tunnel vision. But tonight's game at Orlando and an April 12 visit to Cleveland have been circled on the calendar of the Celtics' subconscious for some time.

At stake are playoff seedings. But confidence and bragging rights are also factors that cannot be underestimated in a league in which confidence and verbal jousting sometimes sway the outcome of games.

And the Celtics hold a 2-1 edge over both the Cavaliers and Magic in the four-game season series. In the jockeying for position, teams use the most recent confrontation as motivation.

When the Celtics were near full strength this season, they took 107-88 and 90-80 wins over Orlando. But the Magic recovered for an 86-79 victory over the Kevin Garnett-less Celtics March 8. Orlando will recall that contest for its strong start and blowout-potential 22-point lead; the Celtics will remember their late rally that climaxed with Ray Allen missing a potential tying 3-pointer in the final minute.

"We've been talking about Cleveland and Orlando all year," Allen said after Monday's 90-77 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. "[The Magic] beat us last time here on our floor, so this is a big game for us."

The Celtics have been able to contain the Magic offense, which is averaging 102.3 points per game.

"Getting back in transition, that's been the focal point here," Allen said. "Getting back in transition and getting to their shooters. They've got a lot of shooters, they keep the floor spaced, and we've just got to keep our paint tight but, at the same time, get out to their shooters."

The Celtics (54-18) have little chance of catching the Eastern Conference-leading Cavaliers, and coach Doc Rivers believes there is a negligible difference between the No. 2 and 3 seeds.

So Rivers will continue with the low-minutes program for Garnett, who has 32 points and 10 rebounds in 49 minutes 37 seconds spanning three games since returning from a right knee strain. Garnett has slightly exceeded Rivers's ostensible pregame limit of seven minutes per half in all three contests.

This road trip - against Orlando tonight and Atlanta Friday - could be a preview of the second round of the playoffs.

"That's what it's looking like," said center Kendrick Perkins. "Everybody is looking ahead, but we both have to get past the first round.

"We've just got to go out there and do what we have to do. We have to go out there and play relaxed. We just have to go out and get the win, and I think we can do it.

"It would mean a lot just to have the edge over them. Last year it was opposite; they were 2-1 over us. I think it would be pretty good to return the favor but, other than that, I think we'll be all right."

"It's a huge game; every game is huge," said forward Glen Davis, who has delivered some of his best late-game performances in visits to Orlando and San Antonio. "[Tonight] is not just a game. We have to go out there and win. We've got Kevin back, so we have to be ready to play."

Asked about concentrating on Orlando rather than Cleveland, Davis replied: "Kind of, sort of. Everybody knows who we are. We're the champs. Everybody knows what kind of team we have. Everybody knows what we are capable of doing. We just have to go out there and play."

Davis outplayed Orlando's Dwight Howard during the Celtics' victory Jan. 22. But Howard dominated most of the March 8 game with his rebounding and shot-blocking.

"It's a big game," said Howard. "They have a lot of their guys back, so we are looking forward to it. They won the last couple of games and I think it is going to be a good matchup.

"They are the defending champions and they are playing well. We want to come out with a lot of energy, and hopefully, we can get a good win.

"We are going to play our normal game. We are going to attack inside and out and we are going to run. The last time we beat them, we did a good job of running and getting easy shots and not letting their defense set. Hopefully, we can do the same thing."

Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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