Magic 96, Celtics 89

Celtics’ failure needs study in the third degree

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / February 8, 2010

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Third-quarter letdowns have been costly for the Celtics this season. But the Celtics took third-quarter lowlights to even greater depths in a 96-89 loss to the Orlando Magic yesterday.

The Celtics’ half-court offense was nonexistent for most of the third quarter. Their defense was similarly virtual, so there were few chances for transition baskets. And the Magic capitalized, outscoring the Celtics, 36-11, in overcoming an 11-point deficit.

Numbers do not always tell the story, but these figures give an idea of how bad the Celtics’ third quarter was:

■ A 19-0 Orlando run over a 5:12 period;

■ The Celtics were without a field goal over the final 7:16, a total of 8:15 spanning the final two quarters;

■ The Magic’s dominance extended to 28-2 over a 7:28 period spanning the third and fourth, Mickael Pietrus’s 3-pointer 29 seconds into the fourth making it 79-62.

“We were getting what we deserved,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of the third quarter. “I thought we played [very badly]. In the third quarter, I thought everything we did in the first half we decided not to do. I thought we lacked discipline. I think right now, when you look at our team, I say I love our team on paper. But we tend to be front-runners - when we get a good lead, we relax and teams take advantage of it.’’

In fact, the Celtics outscored the Magic in three quarters. The Celtics took a 51-40 halftime lead and actually started the second half strong.

Kevin Garnett (13 points) hit three shots, including an alley-oop dunk from Rajon Rondo, as they maintained their halftime margin. But, after Garnett’s 20-footer gave the Celtics a 57-46 lead 2:56 into the half, the Celtics would get only one field goal - a Rondo 3-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer - for the remainder of the quarter.

Orlando had little difficulty defending the Celtics’ half-court offense, a Magic defender seeming to show up on a spot simultaneously with a Celtic. That left the Celtics in a freelance mode with little time on the shot clock. That is definitely not their style.

The Magic established their offense by isolating Dwight Howard against Kendrick Perkins, and once the low-post game was established, Orlando was able to pick its spots from the perimeter. Also, crucially, even after Howard (16 points, 13 rebounds) committed his fourth foul (with 5:58 left in the third), coach Stan Van Gundy allowed him to remain in the contest.

“We’re behind to begin with,’’ Van Gundy said. “My thing is that if he picks up his fifth, then we’re going to have to deal with it because I just think our chances of winning if he’s going to be limited to 20 minutes or something, we’re going to have a hard time on the road beating the Celtics. He’s a smart guy, anyway, and you just sort of gamble that he’s going to be able to do it.’’

The sold-out TD Garden crowd seemed shocked by the Celtics’ comatose performance. Spectators mostly watched in stunned silence in the fourth quarter, reluctant to get their hopes up as the Celtics rallied.

The Celtics held the Magic to one field goal in a 10:40 span in the final quarter, reducing their deficit to 5 points in the final minute. Paul Pierce, who had missed two games with a left foot sprain, got a layup off an in-bounds play and another layup off a Garnett feed. A Ray Allen foul shot cut the deficit to 94-87 with 1:09 left. Garnett contested a Vince Carter drive and Eddie House tipped the rebound away from Howard, the Celtics gaining possession with 51 seconds remaining. Then, Pierce penetrated and found Garnett, who converted two foul shots with 43.4 seconds on the clock, making it 94-89.

However, Orlando was able to clinch the result as Rashard Lewis scored at the shot-clock buzzer with 18.9 seconds remaining.

“It’s rare that you outscore a team three quarters and lose the game,’’ Rivers said. “When you see those numbers, with our defense, you would say, ‘Boy, they probably won the game.’ And I really believe this: We could have scored zero points in the third quarter and we should never give up 36 points. But we did.’’

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