First-half lag dooms Celtics in this opener
The Celtics rallied late in the season to edge the Orlando Magic for the No. 2 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. But they might have squandered that effort last night, dropping the opener of their second-round series, 95-90, to the Magic, their second loss in five postseason home games.
Though coach Doc Rivers did not blame fatigue, the Celtics seemed to be feeling the effects of their lengthy first-round series with the Chicago Bulls. They got off to an extremely slow start in dropping Game 1's of consecutive series for only the second time in their history. The Celtics did not shoot a free throw in the opening half, falling behind, 54-36. The deficit increased to 28 points early in the second half, the Celtics rallying to within 3 in the final minute.
"You hate to lose that first game, especially at home," captain Paul Pierce said. "You've got the home-court advantage and you worked all year for it and we gave it away two series in a row. But, hey, we battled uphill last series and that's what it's going to be this series.
"Mentally, the guys are down for the way that we played in the second half, knowing that we could have played that way in the first half. So we are going to get things going together in practice and come with a much better effort in Game 2."
The Celtics rallied within 91-87 with 1:36 remaining, then failed to score on three successive possessions. Orlando's Hedo Turkoglu committed two turnovers, but Pierce's drive against Rashard Lewis and Dwight Howard failed on what turned out to be their final meaningful possession.
This ending was similar to the late-game drama of most of the first round, which included four overtime games.
Howard's 3-point play gave Orlando an 89-77 lead with 3:25 remaining. The Magic nearly had a chance to increase that advantage as Rajon Rondo and Rafer Alston wrestled for possession on the floor. Rondo won that match, briefly losing control after allowing the inbounds pass to roll into trouble, then made an improbable pass from a sitting position to Brian Scalabrine for a 3-pointer.
Pierce sank a three to make it 89-83 with 2:42 to go, the Celtics got a turnover out of a Magic timeout, and Glen Davis's reverse layup cut the deficit to 4 with 2:08 to play. But that would be the final Celtic field goal of the game.
Alston drove and Pierce countered with two free throws, Orlando leading, 91-87, with 1:36 remaining. Turkoglu missed, but Rondo and Ray Allen missed connections; Turkoglu was stripped of possession, but Allen missed a three.
Turkoglu committed an eight-second violation, the Celtics called a timeout, and Pierce went through the left side of the lane, his path sealed off by Howard. Pierce revived Celtic hopes with a three with 6.6 seconds left, after J.J. Redick's free throw made it 93-87, then Redick clinched the result half a second later.
"We can't wait until we're down 25, 26 to wake up," Pierce said. "It's like a boxing match - you get hit with a hook and an uppercut, then you decide to fight. We can't do that, we've got to take the fight to them from the start.
"We never feel like we're out of a ballgame but you never want to get down like that, especially at home. There's no excuse for it. We know we can play better basketball.
"When we go back, the whole emphasis, we'll probably want to look at the second quarter, what we didn't do, and the third quarter, what we did do, pretty much sums up the game."
In the opening half, the Magic committed just three personal fouls. Pierce was limited by foul trouble, performing for less than 15 minutes.
But the Celtics' second unit kept them in contention. Stephon Marbury converted off a drive with :01 on the shot clock for a 30-28 lead with 8:44 remaining, but the Celtics were outscored after that, 26-6.
Pierce's drive drew Howard's second foul 47 seconds into the second half, but did not signal a change in the Celtics' fortunes. Orlando went on an 11-0 run over a 93-second span, Redick's three increasing the lead to 65-37. The Celtics seemed to awaken out of a timeout, going on an 18-6 run over a 5:04 span, Rondo hitting six successive foul shots, including two after driving on Howard.
Rondo, who had a strange shooting night, missing his first six shots and airballing a foul shot, got the Celtics' game into gear in the third quarter.
Kendrick Perkins sparked the Celtics' fourth-quarter start, blocking a Howard dunk attempt, Pierce getting two foul shots in transition 21 seconds in. Rondo poked the ball away from Anthony Johnson, but it ended up with Mickael Pietrus for a three. Then Pierce made a jumper, Eddie House a three off a jump ball, Rondo a dunk off a steal from Johnson, making it 81-71 with 10:10 to go.
The Celtics seemed to be in command, but their offense stalled, and Howard's defensive rebounding limited their chances.
Rondo forced Alston into a turnover, but the Celtics failed to get a shot on their next two possessions. Two Scalabrine foul shots after a Turkoglu free throw made it 82-73 with 8:35 left.
Then the Celtics had an extraordinarily futile possession, which continued for nearly a minute; they missed twice and called a timeout, drew a foul, had a Pierce shot blocked by Howard, and a missed Allen three at the shot-clock buzzer. Alston's left-hand drive made the score 84-73 with 6:15 remaining.
"There was no fatigue, I don't believe in that," Rivers said. "We had a whole day off, we ain't making no excuses. We played flat, we played with no energy in the first half, but it wasn't the fatigue factor.
"[In the second half], we just applied pressure defensively. We got up into them, we played desperate, like we should've done all game. I told our guys, 'You made a great comeback but you didn't win the game.' "