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Magic 96, Celtics 94

Celtics’ lead magically vanishes in Orlando

They take a tumble on late Lewis basket

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / January 29, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. - The Celtics did almost everything right for nearly three quarters against the Orlando Magic last night. But they did nearly everything wrong in the last minute of play, and it cost them in a 96-94 loss.

“We should have been up 25 points at halftime,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “I thought we lost our focus. We started walking around like we had accomplished something by getting up. Our focus kept going in and out. And when it did, you saw what happened.’’

Though Kevin Garnett was slogging through one of his least inspired performances since joining the Celtics, they led by as many as 16 points in the third quarter. The Magic rallied with a 35-22 fourth, but even then, the Celtics appeared to be in command.

Garnett halted a lob to Dwight Howard and Paul Pierce converted a 3-pointer for a 92-91 advantage, then Rajon Rondo dived for a loose ball and called a timeout before Vince Carter could tie him up.

Rondo and Pierce are All-Stars. C4.

Rondo hit a floater for a 3-point lead with 52 seconds to go. At that point, the Celtics were willing to allow the Magic anything but a 3-point attempt. But they then committed a string of errors.

J.J. Redick was left open for a tying 3-pointer with 41.4 seconds on the clock. Then the Celtics shot too soon, Ray Allen firing an off-balance three after stretching to corral a short-hop pass from Pierce with nine seconds on the shot clock. And the clincher, Garnett was out of position, allowing Rashard Lewis to drive the baseline for a layup with 1.3 seconds remaining.

Garnett took much of the blame for the defeat, but an overall lack of concentration was costly. Garnett will be a starter in the Feb. 14 All-Star Game, and both Pierce and Rondo were chosen yesterday as reserves, but none of them could lift the Celtics in this contest.

“We were good for, out of 48 minutes, about 34, 35 of them,’’ Allen said. “I think, defensively, we were solid and then in the fourth quarter we didn’t get stops. We did the things we wanted to do early. Our offense was good. Defensively, we seemed like we had good control, but then we were turning the ball over and getting beat on the offensive glass. The lead we had at halftime, it could have been greater.

“We’re kicking ourselves over this one because we felt we gave it away. They played hard and played well enough to pull it out in the end. There were so many things we didn’t do.’’

In the third quarter, the Celtics were going for a 17-point advantage when Garnett missed a one-handed slam off a Rondo lob. The Magic used two 9-0 rallies to regain momentum, and tied the game, 84-84, on a Marcin Gortat banker with 4:52 remaining.

“We were aggressive, we wanted to get up in their space,’’ Pierce said of Orlando’s final possession. “It’s tough, [Lewis] stayed poised and he got to the basket. Obviously, we don’t want to give up a basket when the game’s tied, but I thought we played tough defense. We needed to play tough defense for one more second.

“The good part, we get them [Feb. 7 in Boston]. Right now we’ve just got to bounce back against Atlanta [tonight]. We’ve got these last few games before All-Star break and these are games where it’s mentally tough, you’ve played so many games, and guys start thinking about the break. But this is a veteran group and I think we’re going to be able to get through and, hopefully, we can finish a lot stronger.’’

After Lewis’s layup, the Celtics called two timeouts and set up Rasheed Wallace, who fired wide from the top of the 3-point line at the buzzer.

“That’s a prayer,’’ Rivers said. “We did get a good look but if you’re waiting for that - I don’t want to be a lucky team, I want to be a good basketball team. It’s the basketball gods, I think when you screw with the game the way we did, I think you lose. And I think the basketball gods punished us. One thing I told them after the game was I love ’em, I just didn’t love the way we played.’’

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