THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

Just when all seemed lost, they reappeared

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / May 25, 2010

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Stan Van Gundy needed to know. Who were these guys?

Were they quitters, or were they fighters? Were they going to allow the entire nation to think they had somehow gotten lost en route to the Westminster Dog Show?

“The question will come,’’ he said before last night’s game. “The question will come, either early or late in the game, especially when you’re down. That’s the question, not the mentality going into the game.’’

The question came at least five times. It came in the second quarter. It came in the third quarter. It came in the fourth quarter, perhaps twice. And it came in overtime. Each time the Celtics, who were swimming upstream all night, seemed to be on the verge of imposing their will on the Magic, the men from Orlando had the proper response. They pulled out a 96-92 overtime win in Game 4, and thus live to fight another day.

“We kept fighting and fighting and fighting,’’ said Van Gundy. “That’s what it took to get an overtime win.’’

The will was there, and so was the way. The Magic deserved this game because they played a far better game of basketball, at both ends of the floor, than they had as they fell into that 0-3 abyss from which no NBA team has yet to return. On offense, they spaced the floor, moved the basketball and attacked the basket, and when all else failed, they had a reliable weapon in the missed-shot department with 17 second-chance points, especially if Dwight Howard was anywhere in the vicinity. He had 32 points and 16 rebounds, five on the offensive backboard. He was an immense problem for the Celtics all night.

Defensively, the Magic held the Celtics to 39 points in the second half on their own floor and they shut them out for the first 3:14 of a strange OT in which there was only one 2-point basket, that being, appropriately, a Howard follow of a Jameer Nelson miss that created the final score with 52.7 seconds to go.

Any fan of true hoop justice knew which team deserved to win. Orlando responded to its 0-3 crisis by playing by far its most intense and intelligent game of the series. Boston responded to its opportunity for a dramatic sweep by playing a bone-headed game marked by head-scratchingly inefficient offense and a defense which, at times, the Golden State Warriors would have recognized.

“I thought our execution was poor throughout the game,’’ declared Doc Rivers. “We didn’t make our rotations. We didn’t make our passes. It’s amazing how poorly we played and yet were still in the game.’’

The Magic led from 7-5 to 67-66, and again from 70-68 to 86-all, with the exception of a 76-74 Boston lead. But they could not deliver the knockout blow, which is where the aforementioned Van Gundy Moments come in.

The first came when an 8-1 Boston run made it 43-40 with 2:45 left in the half. The Magic dug in to maintain a 51-47 lead at intermission.

Boston rattled its sabre once more with a 6-0 run culminating in a Kevin Garnett jumper in the lane, to which was affixed a free throw. That made it 56-55, Magic, but Garnett came out of a timeout to miss the foul shot, and the Magic remained ahead until a pair of Ray Allen free throws with 49.2 seconds left sent the Celtics into the fourth quarter leading by 1.

But the Magic kept the faith, coming back to regain the lead after two Rajon Rondo freebies at 5:33 had given the Celtics what turned out to be their biggest (and final) lead at 76-74.

The Magic did buckle a bit after taking an 85-78 lead with 2:24 left in regulation on a Howard alley-ooping 3-point play. Now it was Boston’s turn to show some fortitude, coming all the way back when Pierce’s old-fashioned 3-point drive tied it at 86 with 1:16 to go.

As for the Boston offense for the rest of the period, don’t ask. Garnett rebounded a Nelson miss with 16 seconds remaining to give Boston a chance to win, but the Celtics didn’t even get off a shot.

The key man in OT was Nelson, who ended more than two minutes of some pretty bad mutual play with a lucky banked 3-pointer, then sank a much more artistic in-your-face three to put the Magic ahead, 92-86, with 1:46 left. A couple of Allen threes kept Boston afloat, but the Magic had what it took to keep the Celtics from pulling off any dramatic comeback.

All the trappings for a triumphant conclusion to the series were in place. Rene Rancourt belted out the anthem. Celtics legends John Havlicek and Dave Cowens led some cheers on the big screen. The crowd tried to will the Celtics home. But none of it had anything to do with anything, as the Magic demonstrated for the zillionth time that games are won on the floor by men playing with passion and skill, not just one or the other.

The Magic had come to save face, and now they get to play another basketball game tomorrow night at Amway Arena. If they lose, the building closes forever.

If.

“A lot of times people say you can’t think about winning the series [when you’re down 3-0],’’ said Van Gundy. “You have to win one game. I’ve never really bought into that. If you don’t believe you can win the series then it’s just too easy to let it go.

“Yeah, you’ve got to play one game at a time. But you have to have a belief somewhere that you can win the series. Otherwise there’s just not enough to sustain you and keep you going in a game.’’

And some day, he added, a team will come back from 3-0 in this league, just as they have in the other two. Hey, we should know.

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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