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Early success gave Magic false security

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 29, 2010

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It seems their expeditious success in the first two rounds spoiled the Magic so much that for the first three games of this Eastern Conference finals series, they lost themselves. The Celtics methodically built a three-games-to-none lead before Orlando had a chance to regroup.

The Magic claimed the past two games, both victories, and were more indicative of the team that won 59 games and streaked to 28 victories in 31 games before the Boston series. They entered Game 6 last night at TD Garden fully confident they would make history and become the first team to come back from a 0-3 deficit to win the series.

That confidence wasn’t always there during this series. The Magic denied they overlooked the Celtics. When the Celtics stunned LeBron James and the Cavaliers and entered the series as the No. 4 seed, giving Orlando unexpected homecourt advantage, complacency appeared to set in.

The Magic clinched a berth in the conference finals with a 98-84 victory over the Hawks May 10, giving them five days off before the Boston series began. Add to that the seven-day break between their first-round series win over the Bobcats and Game 1 against the Hawks, and the Magic had rested 13 days between April 26 and May 16.

A younger team doesn’t need so much rest, and the Magic entered the series stale and comfortable, and they were punched in the mouth for the first three games by a Celtics team that had little fear of the them, especially after overcoming the Cavaliers.

“We were playing good in the first two rounds,’’ forward Rashard Lewis said. “And playing a team like the Boston Celtics, we struggled the first two games. And now they’re struggling a little bit and we’re playing well. So it’s all about hitting a good rhythm and keeping that rhythm going.’’

Lewis said he suffered from a viral infection during the series and entered Game 6 nearly 100 percent. “I feel a lot better. In this whole series, today is the best I’ve felt in a while. Last game, I felt a little bit better,’’ he said.

Lewis wouldn’t attribute his early-series performance — 15 points total the first three games — to sickness. His entire team spent the first three games in a daze. The Celtics stole the first two games in Orlando with better execution down the stretch. In Game 3, the Magic lost their passion and never made a serious run in a 94-71 loss.

That performance was Orlando’s worst in the postseason in years, and the Magic don’t necessarily blame the time off, but it didn’t help.

“Winning easy, you feel like you can’t be beat if you play the right way,’’ Lewis said. “You are looking ahead of things and you run into a road block like the Boston Celtics, you are looking at yourself in the mirror like ‘what happened? What are we doing?’ You forgot how good [the Celtics] really were. That they won a championship two years ago, that they are still one of the best teams in the league just because of the ups and downs they had during the regular season, you kind of forget about the Boston Celtics that won the championship. And I think that’s what we did.’’

The Magic are hoping not to pay for their three-game snooze. They regained momentum, with point guard Jameer Nelson the key to the two-game comeback. The former Saint Joseph’s standout, like Rajon Rondo, is attempting to emerge as a top-flight point guard.

Nelson and Rondo have battled valiantly in this series and each has assumed leadership roles on their respective teams.

“We’ve done a lot better job of playing with a lot of energy,’’ Nelson said of his team’s two wins. “And just pushing the ball and making everything we do hard and even in halfcourt, our cuts and screens are a lot harder. The first three games, I don’t think it was us. The last two you have seen more of us. We play the game better. In terms of being us, we played hard and with a lot of energy all season long. We didn’t do that the first three games.’’

Even if the Magic don’t survive, the players felt relieved they were able to make a potentially historic run. Perhaps there was a penalty to disposing of their two playoff opponents so quickly, with a young team still learning how to thrive in the playoffs.

“We’re back to playing as hard as we possibly can,’’ swingman Matt Barnes said. “That’s who we are. At this point, we’re fighting for our lives. We had a little false sense of who we were to sweep the first two rounds. Just really feeling good and having success during the regular season. I think we were not as focused as we should have been.’’

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

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