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Celtics 94, Magic 71

Disappearing act

In dazzling display, Celtics leave Magic shellshocked

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / May 23, 2010

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One play early in the second quarter last night of Game 3 of their Eastern Conference finals battle made it crystal clear that the Celtics and Magic aren’t playing the same game.

The Celtics had already piled up a 17-point lead after Rajon Rondo turned a sneaky little layup into a 3-point play.

Then a hustle play became not just a highlight, but the highlight.

Tony Allen got into a passing lane and tapped a pass that rolled into the Magic’s backcourt. Orlando backup point guard Jason Williams jogged after it, but Rondo was sprinting behind him. As Williams bent to grab the loose ball, Rondo dived headfirst at Williams’s ankles, tapping the ball to himself, getting up, shaking Williams with a quick crossover and sinking a layup that made it 36-17.

The bucket was part of a 12-2 run that ultimately allowed the Celtics to stretch their lead to 24 points. They would go into the half up 17, and ultimately breeze to a 94-71 victory.

That play was the early backbreaker.

“I just wanted it,’’ Rondo said. “I just wanted to make a play on the ball. I think he had the angle on me and I decided to dive for the ball and it just so happened I came up with it and made the play and scored the ball.’’

The play was a microcosm of the night. The Celtics were rabid for a win. The Magic never matched their energy.

“My reaction was just like everybody else’s,’’ Kevin Garnett said, recalling the play. “Pure grit, pure hustle play. I told him after the game when he was in the back, that was probably the play of the playoffs to me. That was just pure hustle. Pure ‘I want it more than you’ type of play.’’

Then Garnett added, “I thought it was a foul, too.’’

For the second time this postseason, the Celtics have a three-games-to-none lead — a hole no NBA team has climbed out of — with a chance to close the series tomorrow night at TD Garden.

“I thought there were several in the first half, hustle plays like that that all went their way,’’ said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. “They were a step ahead of us on every play. I thought they worked harder than we did. I thought they outcompeted us. I think that play was just one of the plays you could point to as indicative of what was going on.’’

Glen Davis scored a game-high 17 points off the bench, his 10-point second quarter fueling the Celtics’ first-half push. Rondo put up his sixth double-double of the postseason (11 points, 12 assists). The Celtics dominated in the paint (34 points) and made the Magic pay for their 17 turnovers (19 points).

The first nine minutes were a medley of disasters for the Magic. They turned the ball over six times, missed 13 of their first 17 shots, and let the Celtics constantly rip the nets. Not only did Ray Allen blur past Dwight Howard for a back-to-the-future dunk, but Rondo, the smallest player on the floor, beat Howard to a rebound. Matt Barnes, who was supposed to be guarding Paul Pierce instead of Ray Allen, often found himself crisscrossed between the two. Pierce and Allen combined for 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting. The Celtics dug the Magic a 27-12 ditch in just 12 minutes.

The Magic missed 3-pointers (8 of 30). Vince Carter needed 12 shots to muster 15 points. Howard never left the phone booth, bricking 7 of his 10 shots.

Meanwhile Pierce complemented his 15 points with nine boards (five in the first quarter). If there was as ball in the air, the Celtics came up with it.

“What we talk about is the things that are big for us is the 50/50 plays,’’ Pierce said. “Loose balls, when the ball is on the ground, long rebounds when it could go either way. And it just seems like all series we’ve been getting to those. Rondo has been big in that department, getting those loose balls, chasing them down. That’s going to be the difference when you’re trying to win close ball games. It could always come down to one possession.’’

With the Celtics up three games to none and the Lakers up, 2-0, in the Western Conference finals, the possibility of a rematch of the 2008 Finals looms. In Game 2 of the Lakers series, the Staples Center crowd began chanting, “We want Boston.’’ Last night, in the fourth quarter, the Garden crowd reciprocated, breaking out the “Beat LA’’ chants.

After spending three days trying to keep his team’s ego in check, coach Doc Rivers was quick with the reminder that they still need another win. Even though the Celtics have led for all but approximately three minutes of this series, Rivers was cautious.

“They’re going to come back in the next game and they’re going to give us their best shot,’’ Rivers said. “Quite honestly, we’re not good enough to let up, and they’re good enough to get it going, so we have to be very conscious of that.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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