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Suddenly in Boston, no lead appears safe

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 25, 2010

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The Celtics, with their weary legs, couldn’t close out the Orlando Magic last night at TD Garden. They had their chances. They had their open shots. They had the Magic reeling in a few late-game stretches.

The margin for error was slim because the Magic showed early they were not the lethargic bunch that showed up Saturday night. They made a slew of mistakes and a banked 3-pointer by Jameer Nelson in overtime perhaps made the difference, but they are indeed back in the Eastern Conference finals.

The Celtics lead the series, three games to one, but Game 5 tomorrow night is in Central Florida and the Celtics’ sloppy effort gave another two days of life to a team that appeared done.

Now come the comparisons to the Bruins and their four-game collapse against the Philadelphia Flyers, although no NBA team has rallied from an 0-3 deficit to win a playoff series. But the Celtics created unnecessary drama by turning in their worst performance since Game 3 of the conference semifinals against Cleveland.

Amway Arena will be a hornet’s nest, a place that will welcome the Celtics like a Georgia Bulldog landing in Gainesville. It could be the most difficult road venue of the season, and the pressure is on the Celtics.

Playoff series take such emotional swings that not even a 3-0 lead is safe. Players are so affected by momentum that one win or one loss can derail a team’s quest. The Celtics were so looking forward to the rest and watching the Lakers and Suns beat up on each other that they didn’t completely focus on finishing their task.

They focused in stretches, coming close to putting the Magic away with a couple of positive possessions, but Rajon Rondo missed layups he converted in the first three games or Kevin Garnett’s customary 18-foot jumper rimmed out, or Paul Pierce couldn’t drain his fadeaway.

This wasn’t a must win for the Celtics, but they approached the game too casually in the early going and it cost them. And the Magic now have at least a sliver of the confidence they had entering the series.

“This most definitely loosens everything up,’’ Orlando forward Rashard Lewis said. “It gives us a lot of confidence that we can beat this team and anything can happen. We have to go home and take care of home. We can’t do what we did in the first two games and get beat on our home floor. If we can take care of home, hopefully we can reverse the pressure a little bit.’’

Now the Magic will relish their underdog role because it’s the first time they have played this series without pressure. The pressure is on the Celtics to close out the series, because since Pierce winked at the ESPN camera after the Game 2 win, the Celtics have been in control.

Last night, they lost a little of that control.

“Orlando is pretty good,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “The way I look at it now, we got to take one game at a time. But if they’re looking at it, they have two home games and we only have one. We just made it more difficult for ourselves. But listen, no one said this was going to be easy.’’

It seemed the teams changed roles in the second half. The Celtics were making foolish mistakes and looking disheveled. The Magic responded with big baskets each time the Celtics made a push and the much-maligned Dwight Howard (32 points, 16 rebounds) produced his most meaningful game of the series, looking unstoppable near the basket and grabbing every loose ball near the rim and stuffing it down.

Close games are generally the most difficult to win in a series. The Celtics withstood 46 points by Dwyane Wade in Game 4 at Miami, but the difference was the Celtics were returning home for Game 5. A team that has faced adversity all season set itself up for more tomorrow night.

Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy certainly still would switch places with Rivers, as the Celtics simply have to play one more solid game to finish the series. As poorly as they played last night, they still had the ball with a chance to win in the final seconds of regulation.

Orlando played better than it did in the previous three games, but the Magic still couldn’t easily finish off the Celtics after they extended the lead to 8 in the second half. So now it’s all about adjustments.

The Celtics are taking today off to rest their tired bodies.

They believed they had enough energy to finish off the Magic, which would have resulted in a mini vacation. Instead they have been dragged back into a battle and now must get back all that momentum to finish off a team that is tougher than it had appeared.

It won’t be easy.

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

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