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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Was it rust? Or did it signify deeper problems?
We won't know the answer to that question until the rest of the series plays out, but let's start with the facts we do know: The Orlando Magic barely showed up on offense until midway through the third quarter, amassing a deficit so large that not even the Celtics could blow it, and that was the key to the Magic's 92-88 Game 1 defeat to Boston.
Of particular note was the first 16 minutes, when Boston frustrated Orlando at every turn by getting hands on balls, running shooters off the 3-point line and denying Dwight Howard quality looks on the block. With eight to go in the second quarter, the Magic had amassed the pathetic total of 14 points and already were down 15 points; essentially, they built themselves a hill too great to climb.
"I don't think we were prepared for the level they were ready to play," said Vince Carter, who was just about the only Magic player to show up in the first quarter and a half and finished with a team-high 23 points. "They were ready to go from the jump, and we weren't on their level from the beginning."
"We were anxious," said Howard, who struggled to a 3-for-10 night and was responsible for seven of the Magic's 18 turnovers. "I don't think we moved the ball like we needed to get them off our bodies. That's what we have to do to beat this team."
From the middle of the second quarter on, the Magic looked more like the Orlando Magic team that had contested the previous 90 games, but so great was their deficit that they couldn't come back despite exploding for 41 points in the final 14 minutes -- including an incredible intentional free-throw miss and layup connection by Carter and Jameer Nelson.
"We fought like heck to get back in the game," said Carter. "Unfortunately, when you're down that many points -- when they defend like they do, it's going to be tough."Orlando's first-half implosion included a nine-minute span without a basket -- the only points coming on free throws by J.J. Redick and Howard. The Magic committed six turnovers on the 17 possessions in that span, and signs of frustration mounted. Howard and Carter began jabbering at the refs, Carter hung his head after throwing away an inbound pass for a Boston layup, and Howard took a costly technical foul for delay of game after a traveling call late in the third quarter. Orlando eventually found its offensive footing, but not before the Celtics' lead swelled as large as 20 points.
As for the rust issue, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy wasn't buying it, blaming the 18 turnovers for the defeat instead.
"I don't think it had anything to do with [rust]," said Van Gundy. "I think it had more to do with their defense. I don't think we played with either great energy or very good focus on the way we wanted to play the game. So I'm not going to take that as an excuse."
Perhaps Orlando was overdue for a stinker -- the Magic hadn't lost in a month and a half. And certainly, having six days off was probably less than optimal for them to enter at peak efficiency, especially when the four previous games had been laughers against an overmatched and undermotivated Atlanta squad.
"When you don't do it for a few days," said Redick, "you forget how much you have to put into [it], and we didn't put enough into this game. They did and there's no way we can beat them if we don't match their level of energy and how hard they play."
Of course, there also was the little matter of their opponent. Boston is one of the league's elite defensive teams and historically the Magic have never had an easy time scoring on the Celtics, because Kendrick Perkins doesn't need double-team help to defend Howard. From the opening tip, as Redick and Carter noted, it was clear the Celtics had brought their A-game.
"Defensively in the first half we were terrific," said Boston coach Doc Rivers.
One of the biggest problems for Orlando was that it couldn't make a 3-pointer. The Magic were only 5-of-22, and the normally deadly Rashard Lewis was 0-for-6 -- including a couple of fourth-quarter tries that could have made the final seconds much more interesting.
But part of the reason was that they weren't Orlando's typical shots -- many of them were contested looks rather than the Magic's usual two-passes-around-the-perimeter-to-a-wide-open-weakside-shooter variety. The Celtics particularly cut off the corner 3-pointer, the highest-value shot in the game, limiting Orlando to five attempts and no makes from the corners.
"We have to make them," said Carter. "They are few and far between. They did a great job of challenging the 3-point shots and staying home on our shooters. So when they're there, they're there. We just can't force them."
The paucity of 3s had a fairly simple explanation: The Celtics rarely were put into help situations, as Orlando didn't threaten the Celtics off the dribble for the better part of three quarters and didn't need to double Howard on the block.
"We weren't able to score one-one-one, " said Van Gundy. "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."
As a result, the Magic face a 1-0 deficit entering what becomes a must-win Game 2 at Amway Arena on Tuesday. Whether it's by shaking off the rust, curing the turnovers or finding its 3-point touch, Orlando has to start the game more solidly to survive.
That's not as simple as it sounds against Boston's tenacious D. However, thanks to the hole Orlando dug in the first 16 minutes of Game 1, it's now imperative.