By KEVIN McNAMARA
BOSTON - Ever since the embarrassing, 25-point blowout loss that was Game Three of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night, the Orlando Magic took turns fuming and brooding at their downtown hotel.
When they turned on the TV or radio, they heard their team called everything from chokers to fakers to frauds. When they met with their coaches, they were scolded for a shoddy effort and awful execution. When they took time to contemplate the future, they could easily see the end of their season just hours away.
But that demise was not in Dwight Howard's plans. It wasn't what Jameer Nelson had in mind either. Together, the big man and the little guard combined to deny the Boston Celtics a four-game sweep and send the series back to Orlando with an exciting, physical 96-92 overtime victory at TD Garden on Monday night. Game Five will be played Wedneday in Orlando.
"I told the guys before the game to put out all the disbelief, anxiety and fear. We just have to keep playing," said Howard. "We can't think about losing and getting swept. We have to think about winning and staying together."
Howard dominated the lane for the second time this series, scoring 32 points, grabbing 16 rebound and blocking 4 shots. But the real key was Nelson. The crafty guard from Saint Joseph's was apparently sick of getting out-classed by the Celts' Rajon Rondo. On this night, he was the engine that made his team hum. He threw in 23 points, passed for 9 assists and made two critical 3-pointers in overtime that stood up and iced a gritty, tough victory.
"He created the vast majority of our offense tonight. I don't think there's any doubt about that," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said of Nelson. "We put a lot on his shoulders and he responded extremely well. I'm sure Boston will make some adjustments. We'll have to find some other things. We can't put it all on him on Wednesday but he was tremendous tonight."
The Celtics grabbed control of the first three games in the series right from the start but not in this one. Orlando shot 63 percent to fly out to a 31-26 lead. The Magic kept rolling and led 51-47 at the break.
"I just didn't think we had great energy in the first half defensively," said Boston coach Doc Rivers. "Jameer Nelson, even though he only had 23 points, I thought he dominated the game. I thought he went wherever he wanted to on the floor. And I thought he made big plays for them."
The Celts needed a spark out of their defensive malaise and received one midway through the third quarter. Down 55-49, the Celtics missed a shot and Howard fought for rebound position on Kevin Garnett with a hearty forearm across the brow. Garnett quickly took exception and flipped a fist at Howard and was whistled for a technical foul.
The free throw gave the Magic a 56-49 lead but the play seemed to ignite a fight in the Celtics that was missing. A Pierce 20-footer was followed by an Allen steal and jam. When Garnett added a 16-footer, the lead was sliced to just 56-55. The Magic answered that scare but couldn't hold off the Celtics. A J.J. Redick 3-pointer made it 67-62 but Boston closed the quarter with six points and finally went ahead on two Pierce free throws with 49 seconds to play.
Boston led 68-67 after three quarters but couldn't hold the lead. The Magic opened the start of the fourth quarter with Redick canning two 3-pointers while the Celtics reserves played horribly. Rasheed Wallace was slapped with a costly technical that helped the Magic run out to a 74-70 lead.
To their credit, the Celtics rallied to force overtime in clutch fashion. The Magic appeared in control with an 85-78 lead with 2:24 left after Howard converted a dunk and free throw. But the Celts weren't dead.
First Pierce drove the lane for a monster jam. Howard missed a turn-around from in close and Allen drained a killer 3-pointer in front of the Magic bench that sliced the deficit to 85-83 with 1:41 to play. After Nelson picked up a foul and made just one of two, Pierce drove the lane hard again and this time scored and was fouled. His free throw tied the score at 86-86 with 1:16 to play.
A Nelson turnover and missed shot gave the Celtics a final chance to win with 16 seconds left but Pierce lost control with the clock under five seconds and the Magic smothered the loose ball to deny any shot before the buzzer.
"We didn't execute it at all, I can tell you that," said Rivers. "Supposed to be Paul at the top with a pick and roll with Ray, and then the floor was supposed to be flat and spaced. When you look at it, half our team was standing next to Paul. The execution was so bad..I thought we executed poorly throughout the game. It was amazing how bad we were execution wise and still had a chance to win that game. That's amazing to me."
Both teams struggled with their execution at the start of overtime. After several miscues, Nelson scored the first six points of overtime on two 3-pointers. The first was an excuse-me banker off the glass. The second was a tough-as-nails bomb for a 92-86 lead with 1:59 to play.
Allen kept hope alive with a wide open 3-pointer. Howard powered his way for a score but Allen drained a much tougher trey to make it 94-92 with 1:13 left. But Howard and Nelson had a final push in their gas tank. Howard put back a Nelson miss to put his team up by four and the Celtics couldn't manage another point in the final 50 seconds. Boston shot just 2-of-10 in the overtime.
Now the Magic have earned some life. They'll need to win at home and come to Boston and win again before setting up a Game Seven. That's all in front of Howard, Nelson and their teammates now.
"We didn't win this game just to say we won one game," said Howard. "We want to make this a series and win the series. We all have to believe that."
The Celtics know they have opened the door for the Magic. Now they have to close it. "They're looking at it that they have two home games and we only have one," said Rivers. "So we've just made it more difficult for ourselves. But, listen, no one ever said this was going to be easy. We've made it tough now."
Pierce, who nearly willed his team into the NBA Finals, says his team is ready for the extra heavy lifting.
"You know they're a great team. We're not going to take it for granted," he said. "Game Five is going to be a tough one back on their floor but it is what it is and we gotta try to get another win in their building. That's the goal We really don't want to come back here and play a Game Six. The sense of urgency is going to be there when we get on the road so hopefully we can take care of business."