Celtics finally finish off Magic in Game 6
The last time Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were at a postgame podium together, they were bitter and disappointed. They had been eliminated on their home court, forced to watch the Orlando Magic celebrate their first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals since 1995.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,’’ Ray Allen said.
When the clock hit zero, and the time wound down on the Celtics’ run at back-to-back titles, Allen congratulated Rashard Lewis, his friend and former teammate. He then went over to Dwight Howard, a future star. Pierce stood blankly in front of the Celtics’ bench, swallowing the blowout loss and vowing to remember if the teams met in the playoffs again.
“The difference a year makes,’’ Allen said, an Eastern Conference champions cap resting in front of him as he and Pierce celebrated the Celtics’ 96-84 series-clinching victory over the Magic in Game 6 at TD Garden.
The Celtics are returning to the NBA Finals, doing so not only by overthrowing the defending Eastern Conference champions but also getting revenge on the team that knocked them off their pedestal a year ago.
Before the season started, the Cleveland Cavaliers were anointed the favorite in the East, if not the league. But Celtics coach Doc Rivers constantly told his team that the Magic were the best team in the East, and if the Celtics were going to get back to the Finals, they would have to go through Orlando.
After tearing through the first three games, the Celtics faltered trying to close the series out.
It took them three attempts to slam the door, but ultimately, the Celtics paved the road to their second Finals in three seasons the same way they did the first time: through defense.
“They were tough,’’ Rivers said. “We came in this year thinking that this was the team that we were going to have to beat. Everyone else talked about other teams. We believed that this was the team we were going to have to beat.’’
The Celtics’ calling card since the Big Three was assembled in 2007 served as their golden ticket. The defense took away the 3-pointer that had helped the Magic climb back into the series, holding Orlando to 6 of 22 from beyond the arc.
The Celtics muzzled the Magic’s pit bull point guard Jameer Nelson (11 points on 5-of-14 shooting), who had run wild on the pick-and-roll, and they neutralized Dwight Howard (28 points, 12 rebounds), who had been a wrecking ball.
Paul Pierce scored a game-high 31 points, grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds, and dished out 5 assists, fueling the Celtics’ offense with Rajon Rondo bothered by an aching back.
Coming out of halftime with a 13-point lead after piling it as high as 21 in the second quarter, Ray Allen (20 points) dealt the Magic the kiss of death with two 3-pointers early in the third quarter that took the heart out of any potential comeback.
“We came out of the locker room ready to go after it,’’ Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Then, he knocks down two huge threes and it goes to 19 and gives them a big cushion.’’
The most unexpected blow came from Nate Robinson. Long lost on the Celtics bench, he exploded for 13 points in the second quarter. Robinson gave the Celtics an instant adrenaline shot midway through the quarter, taking a hard foul from behind from Nelson, picking himself up off the baseline, and glaring into the crowd, yelling “Ain’t no fouls.’’ Then he knocked down both free throws to cap an 11-0 run.
The TD Garden crowd broke out the “Beat LA’’ chants in Game 3. It turned out to be slightly premature. Last night, they waited until the fourth quarter.
Having sent home the defending Eastern Conference champs, the Celtics have done their part to make that rematch a reality.
“The first thing I told them when we got in the locker room is this is where we thought we would be,’’ Rivers said. “So don’t be surprised. This is what we talked about before the season started.’’
Pierce and Allen had been thinking about it since last year.