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Bob Ryan

Helpless against this firing squad

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By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / May 18, 2009
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With 2:30 remaining, and his team trailing by 21, Doc Rivers said, "No mas."

He sent Tony Allen and Gabe Pruitt in for captain Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Eighteen seconds later, he made the surrender complete by inserting Mikki Moore and Bill Walker for Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo, and so it was official even before the final buzzer.

The Celtics are now ex-champs.

The Orlando Magic will be playing the rampaging Cleveland Cavaliers for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, and they richly deserve that honor after playing as sound and intelligent and skillful a game as a road team can play in a Game 7. They took the lead at 3-2 and made the Celtics play catch-up for the remaining 46 minutes and change, walking off with a 101-82 triumph.

Oh, the most deserving team won, all right.

"I'm really proud of my team," Rivers said. "Clearly, we did not play well tonight. But we had the right spirit. This is my ninth or 10th year, and this is one of my favorite groups, for the way they fought. But give Orlando credit, they were terrific."

The spirit was willing, perhaps, but the flesh was not up to the task. The Celtics could not stop a team that came out firing threes and never stopped. The Magic are very much a 21st-century team, and so it is appropriate that on a night they advanced to the conference finals for the first time in 13 years they did so by shooting significantly better from 3-point range (61.9 percent) than from two (47).

It was not lost on Doc that after yielding the game's first basket to Rondo the Magic answered with back-to-back threes by Rafer Alston and Hedo Turkoglu, who was the definite Man of the Match with 25 points (on 9-for-12 shooting) and 12 assists. For this one night, anyway, if he had a notion to call himself the Turkish Larry Bird no one could raise a serious objection.

"I thought those two threes they made early were really big for them," Rivers declared. "They had been struggling, and it really picked them up."

This night was inevitable. This bunch stopped being the world champions the minute Kevin Garnett stopped playing. They were still the Boston Celtics, but they were no longer a viable contender. They were a team trying to maximize its potential, whether that meant beating the Magic, extending them to seven, or whatever.

It turns out they had blown their great opportunity to advance last Thursday in Amway Arena, when they allowed the Magic to win a Game 6 in which the home team shot a miserable 36 percent from the floor and 55 percent from the line. The Celtics did themselves in with 22 turnovers, good for 28 points, squandering many good chances to put the game away. From a Celtics viewpoint, this Game 7 never should have been played.

"I think so," agreed Rivers. "Every extra game was another nail for us. I thought that every game we played extra tempted fate."

You simply cannot overpraise the Magic for the way they played. They absolutely shredded the Celtics' defense, spreading the floor and killing them with drive-and-kicks or drive-and-dishes. Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis (19 points), and pesky sub Mickael Pietrus (17 points on 6-for-7 shooting) were the obvious finishers, but the key man in the offense was Alston, who did far more damage than his 15 points and four assists would indicate.

Bill Bradley used to talk about the unsung value of the pass before the pass. Well, Rafer Alston must have had 10 of those.

After all the talk about Ray Allen, he turned in a predictably outstanding game, with a team-high 23 points on 9-for-18 shooting. But the Celtics' offense pretty much stopped after that. Pierce (4 for 13) never got going. Rondo was also quiet on the scoring front, his one big moment a third-quarter buzzer beater that sent the Celtics into the fourth period trailing by a hopeful 5 (66-61).

But that supposed momentum-builder was trumped in an almost embarrassing fashion when the Magic silenced the Garden crowd by scoring the first 10 points of the final period.

Pietrus started the quarter with a three. Allen's response was to go one-on-one in a reckless and decidedly un-Raylike manner, resulting in a badly forced airball. Courtney Lee converted an old-fashioned 3-point play at the other end. Dwight Howard blocked a Perkins shot and Pietrus swished a jumper after some exquisite group ball movement. The Celtics were down by an immediate 13, and that, frankly, was that.

The Celtics had made some little runs in the third quarter, once getting it to 3 (45-42) and twice getting it to 4 with the ball. But Orlando always had an answer, and far too often that response was one of its 13 threes.

"Every time we'd get it down to 7, or 4, they'd make another big shot," said Rivers with a sigh. "I thought our defense was good for 18 seconds, and then they'd make a three with two seconds on the shot clock, and get a runner with one second on the shot clock. And, honestly, I thought towards the end it broke our spirit, because they were fighting so hard."

If you think about how this series began, with the Magic going up by 28 in Game 1, and you think about how close Orlando came to winning in five, then it's easier to accept the fact that the better team won the series.

"We knew what the keys to winning this series were," said Rivers, "and that was dribble penetration. And we never controlled it. We controlled it in spurts, but we didn't control it tonight, and that allowed them to get everything they wanted."

So much for the history. Stan Van Gundy was right. He said reason and common sense told him the Celtics someday would lose a series in which they were up, 3-2. Now they have. And the reason they have is that sports history is made when individuals go out and play the games necessary to make that history.

There's only one guy who ever won all his winner-take-all games, and even if Bill Russell had walked through that door, he's 75 now and might have a hard time imposing his will on the Orlando Magic. It was these Celtics against these Magic, and the Magic were the ones making their own history.

If you didn't believe in Magic before, you have no choice now.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of the Globe's 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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