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Monday, January 23, 2012
Updated: January 24, 3:24 AM ET
Banged-up Celtics put hurt on Magic

By Peter May
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Hey, it only took 16 games. But after what we witnessed Monday night, you could say it was worth the wait. We might never see a Boston Celtics team play quite as well as this one did -- or see the Orlando Magic play quite as poorly as they did -- but isn't this what we all had been waiting for?

How does 87-56 sound against a "quality team"? It was a defensive tour de force. Or, as Magic coach Stan Van Gundy accurately described it, "an absolute beatdown."

The Magic have been in the NBA since 1989 and they never had a night like this. Orlando hit the futility trifecta, establishing franchise lows for points, field goals (16) and field goal percentage (24.6 percent). Van Gundy, who has coached more than 600 NBA games, said after this one, "That's the most dominating defensive performance I've ever had against me."

Dwight Howard
Jermaine O'Neal mixed it up with Orlando's Dwight Howard as the Celtics played with a fire they've lacked much of this season.

It was impossible to see this one coming. Or, to quote one of the ushers at TD Garden, "This is the reason I don't gamble." The Celtics were without five regulars, including starters Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. Orlando was healthy. The Celtics' starting backcourt was Avery Bradley and Sasha Pavlovic. The Magic had Dwight Howard coming off back-to-back 20-20 games. The Celtics were on the second day of a back-to-back. Orlando was off on Sunday.

This did not look like the night the Celtics would finally beat a decent team, let alone the Charlotte Bobcats, with the lineup Doc Rivers was forced to play. But before the game, Paul Pierce let his teammates know exactly what he wanted to see.

"There are no excuses,'' he said. "I don't care if we have guys out or that we're on a back-to-back. We expect to win this game."

And then they went out and completely suffocated the discombobulated Magic. Bradley set the tone. We've always known the kid can defend; it's the other part of his game that needs work. He got into Jameer Nelson full-court, took the Magic out of their offense, and set an infectious tone for his teammates. He was everywhere, so dominating that Rondo joked he might deliberately miss a few more games just to watch Bradley.

"Avery Bradley set a great tone,'' Van Gundy said.

Nelson clearly was flustered, turning it over five times. He started jawing at Bradley, telling the kid that he didn't need to defend full-court. That's when Bradley knew he had won the battle.

"They start talking to me, that's when I know I got 'em,'' Bradley said.

Did he talk back?

"Nah. I just laughed,'' he said.

Bradley did, indeed, set the tone. The Magic cooperated by shooting so woefully. Ryan Anderson had entered the game averaging 17.5 points a game. He had no points on 0-of-8 shooting. The second-highest scorer on the team was Hedo Turkoglu with 7 points.

Then there was Howard, who led Orlando with 18 points. He had 12 points in the first nine-plus minutes -- and 6 the rest of the evening, all on free throws, as he went 0-of-9 from the field over the final three quarters. He and Jermaine O'Neal got into a shoving match in the third quarter, resulting in double technical fouls. The dust-up further inspired the Celtics, who by that time already had a 15-point lead. It would move to 23 after three and balloon to as high as 33 in the fourth quarter.

O'Neal has had many battles with Howard over the years and, on this night, said he simply grew tired of getting elbowed. He pushed Howard away and put his index finger in Howard's kisser, as if to say, "Enough, big guy" (or words to that effect). The two were quickly separated and the technicals were assessed.

Asked what got him so riled, O'Neal said, "It didn't start with that particular play. It started with a couple elbows that I didn't like too much."

After noting the obvious -- "This is an emotional game" -- O'Neal went on to say, "Sometimes you react. Sometimes it can be good for the team. Sometimes it can be bad for the team. Overall, we've been talking a lot about playing a complete game and tonight, from start to finish, is what we were striving to play like and striving to look like, not just to the Celtics fan base, but to ourselves."

We've gotten this far and not mentioned Kevin Garnett, who started slowly but finished strong (14 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks) and played Howard one-on-one with his customary intensity and fire. "That was the Kevin we know,'' Rivers said.

No one, least of all Rivers, expects to see a repeat of this kind of defensive dominance anytime soon. This was a perfect storm of defensive intensity and offensive ineptitude that resulted in record lows for the Magic that may stand for a while.

But to see the Celtics defend like they did, with the passion they showed, was a sight to behold -- and long overdue. We may look back to this one as the game in which the real Celtics finally showed their true colors.

Defense has been the franchise staple for the past four-plus seasons and it has to be again if the Celtics are going to do anything of note. For one night, anyway, they were overpowering.

Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.