ORLANDO, Fla. -- Unbeatable in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Orlando Magic apparently lost their rhythm somewhere before the start of the Eastern Conference finals.
Just like that, their road back to the NBA Finals has gotten considerably tougher.
Showing the rust from nearly a week off -- or from barely being challenged by Charlotte and Atlanta in the first two postseason rounds -- the Magic never totally overcame an awful start and lost Game 1 of the East finals to the Boston Celtics 92-88 on Sunday. Game 2 is Tuesday night in Orlando, where the Magic haven't lost consecutive games all season.
They better hope that streak lives on, or Orlando's season of great expectations might be doomed, because a team that hadn't lost a game in more than six weeks just lost home-court advantage in the NBA playoffs.
"We got outplayed today. That's it," said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, whose team outscored Boston 30-18 in the final 12 minutes. "And I've said it, I believe it, it'll come down to how well we play. We've got to find better ways."
Down by 20 in the third quarter, Orlando went on a scintillating run down the stretch, sending the blue-and-white-clad sellout crowd to its feet for the first time since the opening moments and getting within two in the final seconds.
Alas, too little.
Much too late.
For as great as the finish was -- which included Vince Carter intentionally missing a free throw off the right side of the rim, so Jameer Nelson could rebound it and lay it in, getting Orlando within 90-88 with 8.4 seconds left -- it was the beginning that the Magic will spend the next two days lamenting.
Blame it on rust?
That wasn't acceptable for Van Gundy.
"The schedule's the schedule and I don't think it had anything to do with that," Van Gundy said. "I think it had more to do with their defense and I didn't think that we played with either great energy or very good focus. No, I'm not going to take that as an excuse. We just didn't play well, but let me make this clear, a lot of it had to do with their defense."
The Magic missed 18 of their first 22 shots, setting the tone for their first loss in 44 days -- they had won 14 straight going back to the regular season. After a tiny glimmer of Orlando hope shortly after halftime, Boston seized control with a 20-3 run that made it 65-45 late in the third.
Everything seemed to come easily for Orlando against the Bobcats and Hawks, whom the Magic outscored by a ridiculous 138 points in the first two playoff rounds.
The Celtics, they're not Charlotte. Not Atlanta, either. They had to dig deep at times to beat the Miami Heat in the first round, then got their playoff game even sharper while ousting LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers -- the presumptive favorites to win the title coming into the postseason -- in the second round.
Orlando got to the NBA's final four on a diet of blowouts. Boston was more rugged, and more ready.
"We weren't on their level in the beginning, more than anything," Carter said.
That was patently obvious by the time Sunday's first quarter was over. The biggest deficit Orlando had faced in the entire playoffs was nine points. Boston was up 20-10 by the time Game 1 was 10½ minutes old.
There were many clear signs of trouble, too.
• The Magic were outscored in two of 16 quarters played during the Atlanta series. They got outscored in each of the first three quarters against Boston.
• Orlando made teams pay all season with the 3-pointer. It went 0 for 9 in the first half from beyond the arc, 5 for 22 in the game.
Though there was a last gasp late, with a runner from J.J. Redick getting Orlando within 88-83 with 1:41 remaining and putting Boston back on the ropes for a few moments, that stunningly slow start was simply too much to overcome.
"You want to get off to a good start," Van Gundy said before the game. "And all 48 minutes are crucial. I don't know that any one point in the game is any more crucial than any other is. To beat a team that's playing as well as Boston, you're going to need to play well throughout the game."
That didn't happen.
And for the first time in this postseason, the Magic have lost the upper hand.
"They'll be better Tuesday," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We know that for sure."