And then there are the benefits of age.
Banged up for most of the regular season, and attacked for their growing years, the Boston Celtics delivered a strong message to the Orlando Magic. Leading by as much as 20 in the third quarter, Boston fended off a late rally, getting at least 20 points from Paul Pierce and Ray Allen for a 92-88 win in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals.
“I honestly say we lost ourselves,” Boston head coach Doc Rivers said about injuries in the regular season. “I think we’ve found ourselves again.”
Rasheed Wallace scored 13, but more importantly seemed to irk Magic center Dwight Howard enough to keep him off balance. After setting the record for field goal percentage in a playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks, Howard was just 3 of 10 from the field and 7 of 12 from the free throw line.
Orlando shot just 41-percent from the floor and 22-percent from 3.
“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.”
Howard had a double-double in the loss, and Vince Carter topped Orlando with 23 points. The Magic made an inspired sprint to the finish, though, outscoring the Celtics 30-18 in the fourth quarter to make it a game. But it was too little too late as the home team missed three of their final four shots.
“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?”
It was Orlando’s first playoff loss this year, and first in it’s last 14 games overall.
“I don’t think it was rusty. Just anxious,” Howard said. “We dug ourselves a hole, and it was tough to get back from.”
After leading by nine at the half, Boston went on a 22-5 run in the third quarter to grab a 65-45 lead.
But behind Carter’s effort, at one point driving to the lane and grabbing two of his own rebounds in traffic for a bucket, Orlando made their stand in the fourth. A dunk by Howard cut it to a three-point deficit with 26 seconds left.
“Our guys aren’t going to like fall apart,” Magic head 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.”
Boston likely will now take over as the favorites in the series in NBA Sportsbooks, and will sit a day while Phoenix and Los Angeles square off in Game One of the Western Finals.