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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Defensive intensity carries Celtics past Magic in opener

ORLANDO (AP) 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, Boston literally limped its 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 Boston built a 20-point lead, then held on late to snap Orlando's 14-game winning streak. The Celtics 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-seven 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."

Two years removed from an NBA title, the revived Celtics might be a little slower than their paralyzing defense of old. But, healthy again, maybe not as much as some once thought.

Boston 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 the Celtics ahead 41-32.

Nelson had two quick 3-pointers and another jumper to start the third, moving Orlando within three points. Then it all unraveled.

The Celtics went on a 22-5 run later in the quarter to go ahead 65-45, and a crowd littered with blue and white T-shirts — deafening at times with noise clickers and claps — was silenced. 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 Boston's victory.

Showing no signs of age, the Celtics outhustled and outmuscled the Magic at every step defensively. They pushed and pulled their way around the paint, slowing Howard for most of the game.

That bruising Boston basketball frustrated the Magic and their Superman, emotions pouring out all over the court. 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.

Orlando 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. . ."

West teams ready

LOS ANGELES (AP) Kobe Bryant has barely touched a basketball in a week, giving his gimpy ankle and arthritic finger time to heal. That purplish, jagged gouge over Steve Nash's right eye also should be one week less ghastly by tipoff time in the Western Conference finals.

Although both stars play a beautiful game, Bryant and Nash realize postseason basketball is rarely pretty, and they wouldn't expect to escape the postseason without a few ugly souvenirs of the playoff grind.

After both teams got a week off to rest and recalibrate, the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers will attempt to reach their third straight NBA finals when they take on the Phoenix Suns, starting in Game 1 on Monday night.

"It's all part of the game, every part of it," Bryant said. "I love a long layoff. Everybody on our team is pretty much banged up, so it's good to get rest and get ready for what's in front of you."



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