There was a point in last night’s game when Magic guard Jameer Nelson just wanted to pass the ball, to anybody. He spent the evening being hounded defensively by the Celtics’ Avery Bradley, and by the time he reached the frontcourt with any type of space, there were only 11 seconds left on the 24-second clock.
The Magic struggled on offense from the opening tip in the Celtics’ 87-56 victory at TD Garden. They were lethargic, unorganized, and confused. They whipped the ball around the floor not unselfishly but passively, the Celtics’ defense covering every passing lane, contesting every shot, and grabbing every rebound.
It was a splendid defensive effort that shocked a crowd that was merely hoping for a competitive game with Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, and Mickael Pietrus all out with injuries. What they witnessed was historic futility by the Magic and perhaps the resurrection of the Celtics.
The triumph was an example of the defense coach Doc Rivers has been seeking for two months. The players picked the most unlikely night to unleash it, against a team that was ninth in the league in scoring with the most unstoppable center in the game.
With Dwight Howard appearing only sporadically interested, the Magic set four franchise lows: field goal percentage (24.6), points in a half (20 in the second half), points in a game, and field goals in a game (16). The Celtics turned a 10-point halftime lead into a 23-point edge by the end of the third quarter, when it was apparent that Orlando would mount no resistance.
It was the Celtics’ first win over a team with a winning record and came on a night when Rivers had no idea how his team would respond after Rondo (right wrist), Allen (left ankle), and Pietrus (right shoulder) were scratches, leaving him with 10 healthy players.
Paul Pierce and Brandon Bass each scored 19 points for the Celtics, who led for the final 36 minutes of the game and held the Magic to the lowest opponent point total in club history and the second-lowest opposing field goal percentage.
“We ain’t going to get much better than this defensively, and I think it’s a good blueprint for them,’’ Rivers said. “But it also tells them how hard it was. It’s hard work. I mean, Avery was dying out there. But two weeks ago we couldn’t have done this anyway, honestly, because of conditioning. We would never have lasted. So now it’s a good sign we’re getting in better conditioning.
“I knew we were going to compete. You could feel it. You really could.’’
Howard finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds but while those are OK fantasy numbers, he hardly imposed his will on the game. After scoring 12 points in the first 9:07, he followed with just six free throws the rest of the game, going 0 of 9 from the field.
With 7:34 left in the third quarter, Howard and Jermaine O’Neal got into a heated exchange after elbows and pushes on previous trips down the floor. O’Neal pushed Howard near the face and then charged him, only to be restrained by teammates. Each received a technical.
“It didn’t start with that particular play,’’ O’Neal said. “It was with a couple of elbows that I really didn’t like too much. This game is a very emotional game and sometimes you react. Overall, we’ve been talking about playing a complete game and tonight from start to finish is what we’ve been striving to play like.’’
Overshadowed by the offensive ineptitude was the return of Glen “Big Baby’’ Davis, who spent four years in Boston before being traded to the Magic along with Von Wafer for Bass. Davis, who became emotional during a first-quarter video montage, finished with 6 points on 2-for-9 shooting, with 11 rebounds and 4 turnovers. The Magic bench was equally as cold as the starters, shooting 25 percent (7 for 28) from the field.
Nelson, meanwhile, usually a Celtics killer, was unable to handle the pressure from Bradley. He finished with three assists and five of Orlando’s 25 turnovers.
“Well I think that one’s easy to explain,’’ Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “I think they came out and just absolutely dominated us with their energy and their defensive intensity. Avery Bradley set a great tone.
“We had trouble even getting the ball into the scoring area. They were denying every pass. We struggled getting it there. One-on-one they dominated us. It didn’t start well, and it got worse as the game went on. That’s the most dominating defensive performance I have ever had against me. There’s no singling anyone out. It’s the first game in my career I’ve been through where not one guy played well.
“We didn’t have one guy. There’s no finger-pointing. That’s why you get dominated. Not one guy had a good night, and I am foremost among them. That was an absolute beatdown, and in most senses it was much worse than the score indicated.’’Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashburn14.