Magic 96, Celtics 92

Trick up their sleeve

Celtics allow Magic to pull out Game 4

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / May 25, 2010

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The play was supposed to be a pick-and-roll with Paul Pierce, who was having one of his best nights in these playoffs, and Ray Allen, who was on target from 3-point range. The play was botched so badly, the Celtics never got a shot off.

“We didn’t execute, I can tell you that much,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, swallowing a 96-92 Game 4 loss at TD Garden last night that leaves the Celtics with a three games to one lead in the Eastern Conferemnce finals. “When you look at it, half our team was standing next to Paul. The execution was so bad.’’

Trying to get to his sweet spot with Jameer Nelson all over him, Pierce could do nothing.

The Celtics were going to have to absorb every punch the Magic threw — the barrage of 3-pointers from Matt Barnes, Rashard Lewis and J.J. Redick, and the assaults on the basket by Dwight Howard. They fought to tie the score, 86-86, late in the fourth quarter when Pierce drove hard to the rim with 1:15 left, finished with his left hand, drew the foul, and hit the free throw.

But in the end their chance to put the series away and seal their second trip to the Finals in three years crumbled, just like their final play of regulation.

In overtime, Jameer Nelson dealt the Celtics a combination they couldn’t recover from, drilling one 3-pointer from 24 feet and knocking down another in front of the Celtics’ bench to put the Magic up, 92-86.

But Ray Allen answered with two threes of his own to make it 94-92, as close as the Celtics would get. Forced to chew on their first loss in two weeks, the Celtics didn’t harp as much on their 2-for-10 shooting in overtime. They dwelled on the last moments of regulation, and how the desire to put away a series led them to fall back into the bad habit of trying to be heroes rather than sharing the ball.

“I thought everybody wanted to win the game,’’ Rivers said. “I thought everybody showed up to win the game. But I think at times, when you have a chance to do something — close out a series or win a big game — each guy tries to do it themselves.’’

Pierce finished with 32 points, matching his 2010 playoff high set in in Game 3 of the first-round series against the Heat. On a night when fouls and muscle spasms hampered Rajon Rondo (9 points, 8 assists in 43 minutes) Pierce was Boston’s primary source of offense. But on the final play, he had options.

“Just pretty much screwed it up,’’ he said. “Pretty much turned the ball over and that’s all it is. Couldn’t get the final shot. Sometimes it happens that way. But that’s no excuse. We still had opportunities in overtime and we didn’t take advantage of it.’’

Allen finished with 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting, draining 5 of 7 3-pointers.

“It didn’t seem like we were in synch offensively,’’ Allen said. “We’re kicking ourselves because we had great opportunities still.’’

The Magic left the floor after Game 3 seemingly paralyzed. They showed they still have some life.

Howard scored 32 points, Nelson added 23 (3 of 6 on 3-pointers), and Redick (12 points, three 3-pointers) came off the bench throwing darts. Orlando narrowly avoided becoming the only team to sweep the first two rounds of the playoffs and lose in the conference finals. (The 1989 Lakers were swept in the Finals by the Pistons after running through the first three rounds without a loss.) Now, with the series swinging to Orlando tomorrow for Game 5, the Magic have a slither of hope.

They got their best looks of the series from the 3-point line (10 of 28), and they held the Celtics to 42.1 percent shooting. After playing behind for all but about three minutes of the first three games, the Magic set the tone early and did not fold when the Celtics rallied. The Magic trailed, 68-67, entering the fourth quarter because a Kevin Garnett technical foul (a battle for a rebound with Howard led to a dust-up with Matt Barnes) had fueled a 19-12 Celtics’ run. But the Magic absorbed it.

“It’s the first time I think in the series we’ve actually made it tough on them,’’ said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. “I think the hardest thing when you go behind in a game like this and you’re down 3-0, what you’re fighting against is human nature to just sort of let it go. Our guys didn’t do that. They stayed in the fight.’’

After hearing constant talk that the fight was over, the Celtics now have to ready themselves for another one.

“We just made it more difficult on ourselves,’’ Rivers said. “But listen, no one said this was going to be easy. We’ve made it tough now. So that’s fine. We have to get on a plane, go watch film and get ready for the next one.’’

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