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Celtics forced to taste defeat, not repeat

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By Frank Dell'Apa
Globe Staff / May 19, 2009
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WALTHAM - The Celtics were on afterburners as they crashed out of the playoffs Sunday night. But, after being eliminated by the Orlando Magic, 101-82, in Game 7 of their second-round series, they seemed refreshed and ready to start preparing for next season.

"It's finally sunk in," forward Brian Scalabrine said after players and coaches met yesterday. "Our team, at full strength, we're right up there with everyone else. [Sunday] night's game could have gone either way - they obviously beat us - but we could be in the Eastern Conference final right now. One thing is, we've got to be healthy. Obviously, if Kevin [Garnett] played, it's a totally different series.

"I know one thing: We're definitely going to be geared up to win a championship, no matter who's on the team. We're not going to be playing just to make it, we're going to playing to win a championship. We're a championship team, we have a window of opportunity, and we need to take advantage of that."

The Celtics were a resilient group, dealing with a short offseason after last year's title run, a front-loaded schedule, and injuries. They might have peaked early, compiling a 27-2 start that was the best in league history and setting a franchise mark with 19 consecutive victories.

When it came time to reload down the stretch, the Celtics lost Garnett to a right knee injury. And two days before the playoffs started, Garnett was declared out for the postseason. The team experienced another shock as president of basketball operations Danny Ainge underwent heart surgery.

In the first-round series, the Celtics almost met their match in a Chicago Bulls team that had been rejuvenated by adding Brad Miller and John Salmons. The Celtics took a Game 7 victory, but it was the longest (seven overtime sessions) and one of the most dramatic series in playoff history.

Two days after running the Bulls out of town, the Celtics confronted Orlando. The fact that the Magic led by as many as 28 points on the way to a 95-90 victory in Game 1 indicated just how much the first-round series had taken out of the Celtics. They regrouped and seemed capable of eliminating the Magic, taking a 3-2 series lead and holding a 10-point lead in Game 6.

But the Celtics produced only 29 points in the second half of an 83-75 loss in Game 6, a strong indication they were close to running on empty.

"Reality sets in now, it's over," guard Eddie House said. "Everything we did was for nothing. We came up short, also-rans. We lost, bottom line. We expected to win with what we have, regardless of injury and all that stuff.

"All that's behind us. At the end of the day we didn't get it done, so it's a failed season. Orlando played well, they saved their best shooting performance for [Sunday] night. For whatever reason, our intensity wasn't there, collectively. When we made a run at them, they always had a three to answer us."

Orlando concentrated its defense on limiting the touches of Ray Allen and aggressively double-teaming Paul Pierce. Without Garnett, the entire dynamic of the Celtics' defense and offense was altered. The individual talents of Glen Davis and Rajon Rondo emerged. But the Celtics were lacking a forceful frontcourt presence off the bench without Leon Powe (torn ACL), concluding the season with an eight-man rotation.

"We're not going to be OK with it if we're losing, especially like that," Davis said of the Game 7 defeat. "I don't think we went as far as we could.

"I feel like we could have played better in Game 7. We just didn't play Celtics basketball at the right time - it's just the way it is. We're not satisfied and it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. Motivation, also. We get everybody back and, hopefully, win 82 games next year."

The Celtics held a brief team meeting, then departed. Some players stopped to converse with reporters. Pierce promised to communicate by text message this week.

Rondo sent the following text: "All we can do is get ready for next year, really. That's it. That's in the past. We've got to look toward next year."

Coach Doc Rivers plans to meet with players individually this week.

"The next day is better than the first day," Rivers said of Sunday's defeat. "I'm trying not to give it much thought right now. I'm proud of the guys. They fought hard to get back to the Eastern Conference finals.

"But we play for titles, so that's disappointing. But we didn't have our horses. It makes you understand how hard it is to repeat."

Said Scalabrine: "To win it all, we realize how fortunate we were last year. The main thing is you've got to be healthy."

Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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