By ROBERT LEE
Journal Sports Writer
BOSTON - The TD Garden was rocking and rolling Friday night as a sellout crowd of 18,624, and millions more watching throughout the country and around the world witnessed the most storied franchise in NBA history punch its ticket into the NBA Finals.
In the deciding Game Six of the Eastern Conference finals, Boston built a 21-point first-half lead and never let up, eliminating the Orlando Magic from the playoffs with a convincing 96-84 triumph to dethrone the 2009 Eastern Conference champions.
Thanks in large part to Paul Pierce (31 points, 13 rebounds), Ray Allen (20 points, 4 rebounds), Rajon Rondo (14 points, 6 assists), and Nate Robinson (13 points), the Celtics will now have a chance to fill in the blank banner that they hung up next to their 17 other NBA championship banners inside their practice facility in Waltham.
The Celtics became just the sixth team seeded fourth or lower since the 1976-77 NBA-ABA merger to reach the NBA Finals with win.
Dwight Howard (28 points, 12 rebounds), Vince Carter (17 points, 7 rebounds) and Jameer Nelson (11 points, 4 assists) were Orlando's top players.
The Magic eliminated the Celtics from the playoffs last year, making Friday night's victory that much sweeter. But avenging that loss wasn't Boston's main motivating factor in Game Six. The chance to reach the NBA Finals for the second time in three years was all of the motivation that they needed as Boston's Big Three is hungry for another world title.
Both coaches said before the game that the first quarter was going to be the key to the game and they were right. The Celtics dominated the opening quarter and never looked back.
"It's amazing both teams the emphasis that we've put on the first quarters," Rivers said. "It really has been [important]...It basically sets the tone."
"I think first quarters are always key," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. "Everybody talks about it being a fourth quarter league but if you look at the statistics, it's very much a first quarter league."
The play of Rondo and Robinson set the pace of the game from the opening tip. Rondo got things going early by pushing the ball after every Orlando miss. He scored 12 points and dished out three assists in the first quarter to help Boston build a 30-19 lead by the time the opening quarter had ended. Orlando point guard Nelson simply couldn't keep up with him. What was really remarkable about Boston's 11-point first-quarter lead was that Kevin Garnett played less then four minutes in the quarter after picking up two quick fouls.
A scary moment occurred with 32 seconds left in the first when Rondo got fouled hard by Jason Williams and injured his left hip. He remained in the game until the quarter ended before being replaced by Robinson, who became the unlikely hero of the game.
With Rondo recovering on the bench, Robinson scored 11 points in six minutes to help Boston break open the game. His 3-pointer midway through the second chapter gave Boston its biggest lead of the first half, 48-27, and capped a 14-2 Celtics run.
The Celtics forced four turnovers during their momentum-building surge and converted three of those turnovers into six points.
The Magic would cut Boston's lead to 55-42 by halftime despite 13 second-quarter points from Robinson, but the Celtics opened up the second half with an 11-2 surge that gave them a 66-44 advantage. Ray Allen provided the spark when he made back-to-back 3-pointers and Pierce capped off the surge with a 3-pointer of his own.
The Magic didn't put up much of a fight after that. The Celtics led 82-61 after three quarters of action and coasted in the fourth where many of their bench players got a chance to shine.
After a lackluster defensive performance in Game Five, the Celtics filled in the cracks of their foundation, played terrific defense in Game Six, and shot well from the 3-point land, making 10-of-22 of their 3-pointers while holding the most prolific 3-point shooting team in the league to just 6-of-22 from 3-point range. The Celtics had 20 fastbreak points compared to 12 for the Magic, and they outrebounded Orlando, 45-35.
Boston entered the game as the walking wounded as Glen Davis (concussion), Marquis Daniels (concussion), Rasheed Wallace (back spasms), Rondo (muscle spasms), Tony Allen (twisted ankle) and Kendrick Perkins (sprained right wrist) were all battling injuries, but the weren't going to be denied.
The Celtics didn't expect the Magic to put up much of a fight after they took a 3-0 series lead but Orlando did, winning the next two games.
There were several reasons why Boston believed that Orlando would not become the first team in NBA history to rally from a 0-3 deficit though:
• They believed that they were better than Orlando.
• The Magic had never rallied from a 0-2 deficit in a best-of-seven series (0-6 all-time).
• The Celtics had never lost a series after going up 2-0 (33-0 all-time).
• Only four teams in North American major pro sports leagues has won a playoff series after losing the first three games.
Game One of the NBA Finals will be played on Thursday at 9 p.m. in either Los Angeles or Phoenix. The Lakers hold a 3-2 series lead in the Western Conference finals over the Suns. The Celtics beat the Lakers in six games to win their first NBA title in 22 years in 2008, but the Lakers matched that feat last season when they beat the Magic in the NBA Finals in five games.
With the game in-hand in the final few moments of the game, "Beat L.A." chants rained down on the court from the crowd above. The crowd gave the Celtics a standing ovation for their effort.