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Bob Ryan

Great early D bought ’em some time

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / May 17, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. — It was won in the beginning. It was preserved in the end.

Leads come and go in the NBA, where great shooters reside and where the 24-second clock eliminates the idea of holding the ball. Funky stuff happens at the end of games. Who makes or misses free throws usually seals the deal.

But what people so often dismiss when a team such as the Celtics gets ahead of a team as powerful as the Magic by 20 points in the third quarter, and then hangs on to win by a 92-88 score, is how tremendously efficient and dedicated to the task they were in order to acquire that 20-point lead. Sure the Magic made a run. But it wasn’t good enough. The hill was too big to climb.

“Once we settled down and started playing our brand of basketball, we were OK,’’ said Orlando’s Vince Carter. “But we were 20 points down. That’s tough.’’

The reason the Celtics are ahead, one game to none, in the Eastern Conference finals is defense, specifically the defense they played at the start of the game, when they held the Magic to 14 points in the first 16 minutes and change, and the defense they played in holding the most devastating 3-point-shooting team in the league scoreless from beyond the arc in the first half.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of defending the perimeter against the Magic. They averaged 11 3-pointers a game as they rolled over Charlotte and Atlanta, winning eight straight to extend their streak to 14. The other problem is that the Magic also have Dwight Howard, the most powerful inside force in the game today. If too much attention is paid to him, the great Orlando shooters — and they have several — get open for killer threes.

So any discussion of the Boston defense must begin with the fact that the Celtics, unlike most teams, have enough confidence in their big men to play Howard one-on-one as much as possible. “Kendrick [Perkins], Rasheed [Wallace], and Baby [Glen Davis],’’ said coach Doc Rivers. “I thought all three . . . Dwight Howard is not going to be . . . one, two, three, maybe four guys at the end of the day that have to guard him. And we were leaving them on the island. The one time we trapped, if you notice, they got a three. That was not a trap we were supposed to do. But we did. And they made it.’’

Howard finished with a modest 13 points on 3-for-10 shooting, but Rivers made it clear you can’t judge his impact strictly from his stats. “He doesn’t have to score to create offense. You know, you think about those [fourth-quarter] J.J. Redick drives, those are all Dwight Howard-generated. They scored 30 points in the fourth quarter. I thought it was mostly Dwight-generated.’’

But it starts with shutting Howard down personally, and the Celtics did just that, using up most of the 12 personal fouls accumulated by Perkins, Wallace, and Davis in order to do so.

We are two years removed from a Celtics squad that ranked with the best defensive teams of all time, and it’s the same starting five, so the question as they entered the playoffs was, simply, “How much do they have left?’’

The answer after 12 playoff games appears to be, “Just enough.’’

“That’s who we are, we’re a defensive team,’’ said Paul Pierce (an impressive 22-point, 9-rebound, 5-assist line). “We feel like we want to get up into their guys’ shooters, not allow them to get free looks. We feel like we have guys who can cover Dwight, such as Perk and Rasheed and Baby. That allows us to get up on their shooters and be a little bit more aggressive and not allow us to open up their 3-point game.’’

The Magic talked about how physical the Celtics are, but the story yesterday had as much to do with good, active hands as it did with biceps. The Celtics slapped away a lot of balls, some of which turned into the 18 Orlando turnovers (good for 21 Boston points) that Magic coach Stan Van Gundy felt were his team’s biggest problem.

“We said it going in,’’ said Van Gundy. “It was what they did to Cleveland in the last series against them; very physical, very tough defensively. Eighteen turnovers. We’re not giving ourselves a chance to win with 18 turnovers.’’

“Hands were big for us,’’ said Rivers. “Because of their pick-and-roll game, I think that is one of the underlying keys for us defensively — the deflections and active hands. I don’t know if you saw early in the game, I think it was whoever got a shot, the whole team came down with their hands up because no one had their hands up. They were trying to remind themselves.’’

Conversely, the Magic are not at their best offensively when they fail to generate their own turnovers. A great 3-point-shooting team thrives on two types of threes, the first the pitch-out following the offensive rebound and the second the trey in transition, with those great, open looks. Yesterday, the Magic had neither. It’s very likely this was the only game all year in which that was the case.

When a team is going well, defense flows out of offense, and vice versa. The Celtics did not see that 67-47 lead get down to 90-88 because the defense fell apart. It was because the offense went haywire. There were too many mindless possessions during that fourth period.

The Magic are too good to hold down forever. They did wind up making five second-half threes, and you can bet they’ll make more than that tomorrow night. If the Celtics wish to get out of here with another W, they’ll have to play at least as well defensively as they did yesterday.

But what we now know is that they can.

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

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