ORLANDO, Fla. – The hair is a little grayer. The ankles and knees no longer so sturdy. Even with a roster full of aging superstars, the Boston Celtics are still standing tall.
Too old to chase a title? Not these days.
Ray Allen scored 25 points, Paul Pierce had 22 and the Celtics used smothering defense to beat the Orlando Magic 92-88 on Sunday in the Eastern Conference finals opener.
Hampered by injuries, the Celtics literally limped their way through parts of the regular season. All that seems a distant memory now.
“I honestly say we lost ourselves,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I think we’ve found ourselves again.”
Rasheed Wallace added 13 points as the Celtics built a 20-point lead, then held on late to snap Orlando’s 14-game winning streak. They held the Magic to 41 percent shooting – 22 percent from 3-point range – in displaying that rough and tough defense that was once their staple.
“There were stretches in the season, we know each other so well now, where we were becoming less patient with each other,” Allen said. “We were getting on each other a little too much. We can take it, but we respected each other.
“When we started the playoffs, we said teams are going to hit us, they’re going to attack us. But when somebody scores on us, which they will, we go get the ball out and come back.”
Vince Carter had 23 points and Jameer Nelson finished with 20 for Orlando, which cut the lead to two in the final seconds but simply ran out of time, looking rusty after a six-day layoff. Dwight Howard was limited to 13 points and 12 rebounds, nowhere near the dominant force the Magic need to win a title.
Game 2 in the best-of-7 series is Tuesday night in Orlando.
“I don’t think it was rusty. Just anxious,” Howard said. “We dug ourselves a hole, and it was tough to get back from.”
The Celtics built a 15-point lead in the second quarter and watched it fizzle with Howard on the bench. Backup Marcin Gortat had two layups and a dunk to help the Magic end the half with Boston ahead 41-32.
Nelson had two quick 3-pointers and another jumper to start the third, moving the Magic within three points. Then it all unraveled.
The Celtics went on a 22-5 run later in the quarter to go ahead 65-45. But the Magic rallied late to cut the lead to three with 26 seconds remaining in the fourth on a dunk by Howard.
After Pierce made two free throws, Carter was fouled driving to the hoop. He made the first, then missed the second intentionally as Nelson swooped in for the tip to make it 90-88. But Allen followed with two free throws with 6.1 seconds left to seal the Celtics’ victory.
Showing no signs of age, the Celtics outhustled and outmuscled the Magic at every step defensively.
That bruising Boston basketball frustrated the Magic and their Superman. Howard and Wallace got tangled up in the third – one of many times in this one – and were whistled for double technicals after swinging their arms away.
The Magic lost for the first time since April 2 at San Antonio.
“Our guys aren’t going to like fall apart,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Hell, they got down 20 in this game and they didn’t collapse.
“That’s not our team. This is all about winning. Our team doesn’t have to prove they can bounce back from adversity and all of that. They’ve done all that.”
Kevin Garnett and Co. stifled the Magic as well as anyone in these playoffs, holding them to 32 points in the opening half. A Celtics team that downed LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the last round seems as rejuvenated as ever, ready to give the Magic – who swept through the first two rounds – their toughest test yet.
“I think it was a wake-up call that we really needed,” Carter said. “Now it’s what are we going to do about it? How do we respond?”