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Magic on the brink

Team faces hard fact of going home

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / May 23, 2010

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It has come down to this for the Magic, three-time winners of the NBA’s Southeast Division and two-time finalists in the Eastern Conference: Go hard(er) or go home.

“It’s now or never,’’ said Vince Carter, after the Magic suffered a humiliating 94-71 smackdown in Game 3 last night against the Celtics to get pushed to the brink of elimination in this best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals. “There’s no special remedy, no wonderful cliches, no nothing. It’s just now or never. Now we have to bring it or we’re going home.’’

After sweeping Charlotte and Atlanta in the first two rounds, the Magic suffered a stunning turn of events in this series against the Celtics. They failed to hold serve on their home court at Amway Arena in Games 1 and 2 to find themselves staring at a two-game deficit.

Last night, the Magic were run out of TD Garden from the opening tap.

“The most disappointing [thing] to me was that I didn’t have our team better ready to play,’’ said devastated Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy. “That was what was disappointing to me, was my job. That was the most disappointing. I mean, yeah, it starts with me. It’s my job.

“I’m the coach of this team. It starts with me. I’m not happy with where I had our team tonight, anything about what I did, my plan, any adjustments, anything.’’

If there was one reprieve, perhaps, in Games 1 and 2, it was the fact the Magic at least had a chance to win in the fourth quarter of both games, outscoring the Celtics by the combined margin of 52-35 in the final quarter of those games. After trailing by as many as 20 in Game 1, the Magic pulled within 90-88 only to succumb to a 92-88 final. In Game 2, the Magic trailed by 11 in the first half, but wound up fighting back to take their only lead of the series, by as many as 3 points. But it was shortlived in a 95-92 setback that sent the series back to Boston with the Celtics in control.

“No moral victories,’’ said Carter, who combined with Jameer Nelson to lead the Magic with 15 points apiece. “Not when it’s playoff time. It’s victories. That’s what you’re playing for. That’s something you do during the regular season. We’re not getting the job done right now and it’s very disappointing because I think we’re better than that.’’

Only three teams in NBA playoff history — the 2005 Dallas Mavericks, 1994 Houston Rockets, and 1969 Los Angeles Lakers — managed to come back and win a playoff series after losing the first two games at home.

But early in the second quarter, Rajon Rondo stunned the Magic, diving at the feet of Orlando guard Jason Williams, corralling a loose ball, and springing to his feet to convert a righthanded floater.

Said Van Gundy, “They were a step ahead of us on every play. I thought they outcompeted us. And I think that play was just one of the plays you could point to that was indicative of what was going on.’’

It was evident to the delirious crowd of 18,624, which began chanting, “Beat L-A! Beat L-A!’’ in the third quarter and then “It’s all o-ver! It’s all o-ver!’’ with 5:49 left and the Celtics holding a commanding 87-56 lead, that they were witnessing the complete dismantling of the Magic. Orlando committed 17 turnovers that led to 19 points and shot itself in the foot from 3-point range (8 for 30).

“This one we didn’t look like we belonged in the playoffs,’’ Williams said.

For the Magic, it’s all about pride now. And one other thing: Go hard or go home.

“That’s a fact,’’ Williams said.

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