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On Basketball

Their focus was clearly at high level

By Gary Washburn
February 7, 2011

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This stretch of big games against heavyweight teams has tested the Celtics’ guile, especially Friday’s loss to the Mavericks, a game they were one play from winning. And that play never happened.

Two days later, the Magic arrived at TD Garden, determined to further strip the Celtics of another layer of confidence. You know about the Magic, a team that talks a lot, consistently loads up on new players, but never seems to respond in the clutch.

Still, the Magic are considered one of the upper-tier teams in the Eastern Conference, and a Super Bowl Sunday loss would have been damaging for the Celtics, given the Lakers and Heat await in the next week, ready to exact revenge.

Not only did the Celtics need a victory, they needed one in convincing fashion. They needed little suspense in the fourth quarter. They needed to polish off a team with a third-quarter run and show no slippage in the fourth.

And that describes the 91-80 victory. It was a defensive masterpiece and lends to the belief that the way to stop the Magic is to allow Dwight Howard to score at will and stop Orlando’s other weapons.

The Magic are No. 1 in the NBA in 3-pointers made with 9.5 per game. They made three yesterday. And the Magic besides Howard were 22 for 73 from the field (30 percent). They didn’t show up.

The Celtics stuck to their defensive principles and even survived a stretch of scoring just 9 points in a span of 10 minutes 48 seconds covering the third and fourth quarters, and never allowed the lead to dip below 8.

Last season, the Celtics beat teams more convincingly but then experienced dips in concentration and lost to lesser opponents or collapsed down the stretch of critical games. Losing a 6-point lead in the final minutes Friday was reminiscent of last season, and for their own fortitude the Celtics needed an impressive win.

They left the Magic listless and reeling. They separated themselves along with Miami and San Antonio as the three elite teams in the NBA.

“Not even close,’’ was Magic coach Stan Van Gundy’s response when asked if his club is on the same level as Miami and Boston, which have beaten them soundly over the last three days. “Not even in the same ballpark as these guys. We can be, but we’re not right now. We showed that today.’’

Doc Rivers never says anything more than the victory was important, but even he had to be relieved that the Celtics were able to prevent an Orlando run in the final six minutes, especially with its 3-point prowess. If Boston is to return to the Finals, it has to play this type of defense.

And the Celtics held to their convictions despite Howard tallying 22 first-half points, showing his array of improving post moves. While he was spinning, turning, hooking, and dunking, his teammates watched and grew stale.

“It was tough because we were leaving [our big men] on an island and Dwight had it going early,’’ Rivers said. “And we just kept telling them, ‘We’re doing the right thing.’ Just keep doing it. And that was tough for them, and the fact that they stayed with it and stayed on it was good.’’

Concentration was an issue yesterday after the frightening injury to Marquis Daniels, who collapsed to the floor after a collision with Gilbert Arenas with 11:01 remaining in the second quarter and sustained a bruised spinal cord. The Celtics have been besieged with injuries, and the one to Daniels occurred about 15 feet from where Delonte West lay for several minutes with a broken right wrist two months ago.

The resiliency of this team is its most prominent feature, and it was critical the Celtics respond after Friday. Although the Mavericks are just a notch behind the Spurs, Heat, and Celtics, the loss was demoralizing. The words Phil Jackson screamed at his team during Game 5 of last year’s Finals — “This team has lost more games in the fourth quarter than anybody in the NBA. They know how to lose in the fourth quarter. They’ve shown us that right now.’’ — resonated with the Celtics, and they should.

Friday’s game was a reminder that the Celtics are still capable of mental lapses, and yesterday’s was an example of how mentally strong they are. Despite their dominance over the last four years, the Celtics have cracks. They are not pristine. And the primary goal between now and mid-April should be to maintain that focus for 48 minutes.

Yesterday they did that, despite having every reason for distraction after the injury to Daniels. We don’t hear “ubuntu’’ as much as we did in 2008, but the Celtics produced one of their most impressive wins of the season, and it had as much to do with their mental fortitude and refusal to relent as with their precise execution.

When both are blended, the Celtics are a difficult team to beat.

“In the second half, I thought we had a lot more energy emotionally than anything,’’ Kevin Garnett said. “There was a lot of poise showed by our team today and I think we played ball. We sat there and talked about the Dallas game and we learned that and applied it to today. Now the thing is consistency, carrying this over to Charlotte [tonight] and the next game and the next game.’’

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

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