The Magic had grown accustomed to having things its way after six weeks without a loss, including sweeps of its first two playoff series. But in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday, the older, less rested but more tenacious Celtics sent a stern message by shutting down Orlando from the paint to the three-point line for a startling 92--88 road victory. "I don't think we were prepared for the level that they were ready to play," said Magic guard Vince Carter, who was forced to make squirming one-on-one drives and contested pull-up jumpers for many of his team-leading 23 points. "They were ready to go from the jump—and we weren't."
After seizing Game 7 at Boston last year in the conference semis and then winning three of four meetings this season, the Magic might have dismissed Boston as yesterday's news. But suddenly the Celtics are re-creating the hands-around-the-throat defense that won them the championship two years ago. They held Orlando to 41.6% shooting, including 5 of 22 from beyond the arc, where the Magic often inflicts damage. "In these playoffs, with the days off, it's allowed us to prepare defensively," said Boston coach Doc Rivers. "We had it in us. We did it the first 28 games of the year; we were terrific out of the gates defensively. And then we got away from it. We lost ourselves, and now we're finding ourselves again."
What makes the Celtics so dangerous is that they've been able to stifle two very potent—but very different—attacks. They toppled the top-seeded Cavs in six games by shutting down LeBron James's lanes as a driver and a passer; putting the clamps on the Magic required playing strong team defense all over the floor. Boston's wings are committed to shrinking the floor while closing out frantically to the three-point line. Up front they have size and depth—a stout Kendrick Perkins, a reinvigorated Rasheed Wallace and a healthy Kevin Garnett (fully recovered from a right-knee injury), whose far-reaching help defense in the lane encourages teammates to be aggressive.
On Sunday, Perkins and Wallace beat two-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard at his own game. The Orlando center was held—often literally—to 3 for 10 from the floor and forced into seven turnovers by the one-on-one defense of Perkins and Wallace, whom Howard found to be especially infuriating. "He did some old tricks that were just terrific," said Rivers of Wallace, who tangled arms with Howard in the third quarter before slapping himself free as both were assessed technicals. Howard responded with turnovers on the next two possessions and a delay-of-game technical that pushed Boston's lead to 65--45.
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy recognizes that his team—which had 10 assists and 18 turnovers in Game 1—will have no chance without playing with more energy and efficiency. "We've got to get better ball movement, and we either have to be able to convert better in the paint or we've got to draw help and make passes," said Van Gundy. "I don't care what adjustments we make, [Boston is] a very, very, very physical defensive team. Nothing will come easy in this series."
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Read Dan Shaughnessy on why the Celtics need to get some respect, at SI.com/nba
Amid the incessant conjecture about a move to the Knicks, Heat, Bulls, Mavs or any number of other teams, LeBron James should consider another option: Stay with the Cavaliers—but sign only a three-year deal with an opt-out after two. He would minimize his risk, remain with a contender and have input on potential changes to the team (like, say, a new coach). The free-agent buzz has turned into a cottage industry for James, so why cede all that attention by signing for five or six years? If he feels strongly about leaving Cleveland now, then he should; but if he's as ambivalent as he appears to be, he can postpone the decision until 2012. In the meantime he presents himself as a loyal Ohioan who decided there was no place like home.
BOB ROSATO (WALLACE)
'SHEED, INDEED When not grappling with big men, Wallace found time to intimidate Jason Williams.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH