Hoping their act is together
Magic, settled in, provide good test
Despite a 14-game winning streak and the Eastern Conference’s best record, Celtics coach Doc Rivers did not like his team’s direction heading into its Christmas Day showdown with Orlando.
The Celtics eased those concerns with three impressive quarters against the Magic, and Rivers felt his team would win in spite of its deficiencies. But the new-look Magic rallied in the fourth quarter and the Celtics broke down in the final minutes of an 86-78 loss.
That defeat led to a mini-slump for the Celtics, who are 7-5 after a 23-4 start. Rajon Rondo returned from an ankle injury, but Kevin Garnett was lost to a strained calf Dec. 29. He is likely to return at TD Garden tonight, when the Celtics get another shot at the Magic.
The past three weeks have served as a challenge and learning experience for the Celtics. Garnett has learned patience. Glen Davis has learned about shot selection. Jermaine O’Neal learned that his 32-year-old body may not have as much left as he or the organization believed. And the Celtics have learned that their roster will have to be more interchangeable than expected because of injuries.
Through it all, the Celtics enter tonight’s matchup as the top seed in the Eastern Conference, 1 1/2 games ahead of Miami, 3 1/2 in front of Chicago, and 4 1/2 ahead of the Magic.
While it’s considered another midseason game, the Celtics will face a more confident and settled Magic team.
“Guys get fired up for games like this, at least I hope they do,’’ Rivers said. “I know the other team does for sure. I like games like this because I think it’s good for us.’’
The Celtics were slammed, 29-15, in the fourth quarter of that Christmas Day game, missing easy shots while Jameer Nelson sparked the rally with two 3-pointers after Nate Robinson went under the pick-and-roll on screens, a no-no against the sharp-shooting Nelson.
Robinson’s downward offensive spiral also began when he made just 2 of 15 shots. Rondo’s back in the lineup, moving Robinson to his natural backup position.
The Celtics are better prepared for the Magic this time. Orlando was in the fourth game of its transformation after acquiring Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson, and Earl Clark in two trades. Although Richardson and Turkoglu have blended into the starting lineup, Arenas is averaging just 9.4 points off the bench and shooting 36 percent.
The Magic are 10-4 since the Dec. 18 trades. The Celtics are seeking some redemption following the Christmas Day loss.
“I thought we had been solid,’’ Ray Allen said of the first meeting. “We just made those few mental mistakes down the stretch on top of not scoring a couple of opportunities. We didn’t do a good job finishing off the game. I don’t think we’re that different of a team now, we’re just trying to do a better job finishing off games.’’
Who’s in, who’s out Garnett participated in his first full practice since straining his right calf against the Pistons, and barring any setbacks, should be in the lineup tonight. He made it through the practice well and looked like his old self, according to teammates. Garnett hasn’t spoken to the media regarding his injury.
“He was great,’’ Rivers said. “He went through the whole practice. If he feels good, he’ll go. If there’s anything [wrong], he won’t.’’
Garnett’s presence would move Davis back to his usual reserve power forward position and strengthen the bench. With Jermaine O’Neal ailing, the bench’s production has been weakened and Rivers has had to depend more on rookie Luke Harangody.
Meanwhile, Shaquille O’Neal sat out practice with a strained right abductor muscle in his right leg, sustained when slipping on ice before practice. He will be a gametime decision.
Marquis Daniels left practice because of a strained lower back when he was flattened by a hard (but clean) Kendrick Perkins screen. Daniels said he will play tonight.
Perkins’s recovery from right ACL surgery is nearing the final stages, and he said he is targeting Feb. 4 against Dallas for his season debut. Perkins participated in his first full practice and said he is not favoring the right knee.
“It feels good to be out there and just playing again,’’ he said. “I got to notice [the knee] since I got this big [expletive] brace on. I have never been scared of injuries. Once you get going, it’s how you deal with it.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.