ORLANDO, Fla. - Dreams may come true down the road from here at Disney World. But even the biggest Celtics fans couldn't have thought their team would be perfect all season.
"We're not going 82-0," coach Doc Rivers said.
The Celtics suffered their first defeat of the season in their ninth game in a 104-102 loss to the Magic last night at the sold-out Amway Arena. The Celtics opened the season with the fourth-best start in franchise history. Boston was the last unbeaten squad in the NBA and is the league's only team with one loss.
"We are a team that is going to fight," forward Kevin Garnett said. "We are not perfect. We didn't think we were going to go 82-0. We are a team of character.
"We played hard and we played together. We will learn from this. Games like this build character and hopefully we can apply it to the next game."
Two Jameer Nelson free throws gave Orlando (9-2) a 101-97 lead with 1:28 remaining. The Celtics' Tony Allen missed a wide-open baseline layup attempt with 1:22 left. After a pair of Ray Allen free throws and Garnett fouled out, Rashard Lewis nailed two free throws with 15 seconds remaining to give Orlando a 103-99 lead. Ray Allen nailed a 3-pointer right in front of Orlando's bench to trim the deficit to 103-102 with 7.7 seconds left.
Lewis made one of two free throws with 7.2 seconds left to give Orlando a 104-102 lead. With no timeouts, Rajon Rondo ran down the court with his teammates spaced and a good opportunity to make a play. But the referees stopped the play because the game clock began operating before Rondo touched the ball. Rivers said he felt the clock operator's error ruined an opportunity for a good look to tie the game.
"That clock play killed us," Rivers said. "The floor was spread with Rajon. By that clock starting quick, they were allowed to change their defense. And that hurt us. That really did.
"We had four guys spread and Rajon in the middle. We felt really good with that. Unfortunately, we'll never know."
After the mistake, the Celtics took the ball out at halfcourt and put it in Paul Pierce's hands. With a game-high 28 points already in hand, the five-time All-Star seemed to be a good choice to make something happen, especially because Ray Allen (7 of 17) had a bad shooting night and Garnett (14 points, 11 rebounds) was on the bench.
Rivers said the plan was for Pierce to take the ball to the basket to tie the game. But instead, Pierce hoisted a 27-foot 3-pointer with 1.9 seconds left. The shot missed and Magic center Dwight Howard (24 points) grabbed the rebound, giving Boston its first loss.
"I thought I had a good look at a three," Pierce said. "I saw about one or two seconds left and I could have drove and tied the game up. But I went with my instincts. It didn't go our way today."
Said Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy: "That was a long shot. I was a little surprised. I was trying to get Dwight's attention to come and help on the last play because I was sure they were just going to put their head down and drive to the basket. I was surprised. He pulled up from deep, too. I'm just glad it didn't go in."
It's amazing that the Celtics even had a chance to win, considering how poorly they played.
Boston trailed, 58-41, at halftime and by 20 points (63-43) with 11:06 left in the third quarter. The Celtics had 19 turnovers and Rivers pointed out that they shot 18 fewer free throws (26) than the Magic (44). But despite being down 9 points (85-76) in the fourth quarter, the Celtics didn't throw in the towel and rallied to take an 88-87 lead on a 3-pointer by James Posey with 6:03 left.
"We didn't compete until the second half," Rivers said. "It's tough when you spot a team 20 points. But I love every shot we had down the end. We missed a layup. We missed wide-open threes."
The Celtics took Rivers's halftime adjustments to heart.
"Obviously, in the first half we have to come out and play better," said Garnett. "They came out with the first punch. Doc challenged us at halftime to come back and drag this thing out."
Rivers said before the game he wondered how his team would handle adversity. And after the game, the Celtics seemed to handle their first loss well. Several players said they were pointing fingers at team mistakes and not individual errors.
"There are no moral victories," Pierce said. "Of course we want to win the game. The Magic are playing well. We knew it was going to be a tough game on the road. We have two of the top teams in the East right now and I am most proud of how we fought back and didn't give in. Unfortunately, we came up short. But I knew we wouldn't go 82-0."