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Now, they’re poised to go for the kill

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 19, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Unquestionably, the Cleveland series helped the Celtics get their confidence and swagger back, and they have taken that to central Florida and snatched two games from the Magic, and this isn’t a surprise.

Although the Magic were the No. 2 seed, had won 28 of 31 games and their first eight in the playoffs, the Celtics had no fear and no anxiety about facing the Magic. In the first three games with the Cavaliers, the Celtics were the counterpunchers. Only after they dominated Game 4 did they truly feel comfortable in that series.

After last night’s 95-92 win in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics might as well buy a timeshare near Disney World because they aren’t the least bit intimidated by the Magic, despite their gaudy record and Superman standing the middle.

Dwight Howard brought his top game to Amway Arena, dropping in 30 points, showing that emerging righthanded jump hook, and cashing in almost every time he gathered the ball in the paint despite the Celtics using every underhanded and legal trick to stop him.

When Howard scored 30 or more points this season, the Magic were 5-0. And while the prospect of LeBron James going superhuman and winning a series on his own was a definite concern for the Celtics, they also realized Howard is not yet capable of taking over a game. Last night was as close and he can get, and Boston still led most of the way.

Howard is a perennial All-Star and the league’s most dominant center, but his cohorts didn’t exactly have the Celtics shaking in their sneakers. There have been sentiments of payback in this series because the Magic eliminated the Kevin Garnett-less Celtics in seven games last season.

Garnett’s resurgence has brought that intangible back to the Celtics, that mentality that was present only intermittently this season. Against the Heat, it was obvious the Celtics were the better team after the first 10 minutes of Game 1.

Against the Cavaliers the Celtics weren’t sure they were the better team, but once they executed, once they contained James and shut down his teammates, the Green were indeed back.

“I think we’re becoming the team that started the season more than the team that played in the middle to the end of the season,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “The team that started the season was pretty good. The team from Christmas, the day after Christmas, struggled. So I would like to think we’re that team, the team before that.’’

Orlando cruised in the Southeast and wasn’t pushed against the Bobcats and Hawks. And the Magic’s lack of playoff savvy has been apparent. Besides Howard, the Magic were 19 for 58 from the field (32.7 percent) and they made critical errors in the final few minutes that allowed the Celtics to get away with another shabby offensive fourth quarter.

Most of Vince Carter’s 16 points were empty and when he could have made the loudest statement of the night with two free throws, he missed them both, allowing the Celtics to retain their 95-92 lead. And when the Magic desperately needed a hoop when trailing, 93-90, Jameer Nelson launched a 3-pointer off a fastbreak that caromed off the rim and right into the waiting hands of Ray Allen.

“We played a lot harder tonight,’’ Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. “But we don’t sustain what works. We won’t stay with it. Our shot selection was terrible and we didn’t play smart enough. It’s not a matter of digging out of this. It’s a matter of going up there and you have to win a game. There’s no magic [when] you’re in a hole, 2-0. You have to go win a game.’’

The Celtics did just enough to win the two games, and while the victory margins were slim, there was never a feeling Orlando had control at any point during Games 1 and 2. And that’s because the Celtics have never allowed Orlando to feel comfortable with their staunch defense, physical play, and the offensive production of Paul Pierce.

The Magic are pressing. General manager Otis Smith made a slew of moves to not only return to the NBA Finals but win a championship. But they spent most of the season under the radar and preparing for the postseason. Perhaps the reason the Celtics are leading two games to none is because they have faced — and overcome — more adversity.

This is the first true adversity the Magic have faced and they are not reacting well. The Celtics have had a habit the past three years of sensing weakness in an opponent and they discovered the warts on Orlando’s surface before the series even began.

So there is no fear here, only satisfaction. And the Celtics are halfway to the Finals because they have the Magic rattled more they have been all season.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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