ORLANDO — For basketball fans who have only watched the Celtics this season, the Magic’s place in the NBA hierarchy might be confounding.
Against Boston, Orlando’s young, athletic team that is all arms and legs has been disruptive and difficult. With Monday night’s 113-98 win that snapped the Celtics’ nine-game winning streak, the Magic concluded the season series between these teams with a 3-1 record.
But Orlando has been much less fortunate against the rest of the NBA. At 18-29, it sits alone in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, 4½ games outside the play-in tournament.
Or, to view this odd juxtaposition through a Boston prism: The Celtics are 1-3 against the Magic, and 34-10 against everyone else.
“They come out and play well every time they play us,” the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown said. “So, give credit to Orlando. We didn’t play as well as we’d like.”
Last month, the Magic stomped into TD Garden and completed an improbable two-game sweep that was at the center of the Celtics’ only true slump this season. That downturn in which they lost five of six games was quickly wiped away by the nine-game surge that just ended, though, and there is no strong evidence that a similar slide is coming.
Also, this loss requires an addendum: The Celtics were without three of their top six players, with Marcus Smart (ankle), Robert Williams (knee management), and Malcolm Brogdon (personal reasons) all sidelined. Nevertheless, the Celtics had enough talent to figure this out. The Magic just would not let them.
“They played hard,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “They played physical. They played with an edge the entire game.”
The Celtics have been held below 100 points three times this season, and two were against the Magic. The Celtics made 18 3-pointers Monday, and previously hadn’t been held below 100 points when hitting more than 12.
But they were undone by 18 turnovers and they attempted just 11 free throws.
“They play a lot of bigs, have a lot of length,” Brown said. “They cover ground, and any time you get to the basket, just long arms make those passes tough. They get a lot of deflections. Just a tough team to play against.”
Brown and Jayson Tatum had 26 points apiece to lead Boston. Tatum caused a slight scare five minutes into the third quarter when he drilled a 3-pointer and winced as he put his hands over his ribs on his right side. Moments later, he gave a quick foul and headed directly to the locker room.
After the game, he said he believed it was just a cramp, and he returned about four minutes after exiting. But the 2-point lead the Celtics had when Tatum departed had been flipped into an 86-73 deficit by the time he returned.
That Magic surge included a pair of 3-pointers by forward Jonathan Isaac, who was playing in his first game since suffering a devastating knee injury in August 2020. Much of Orlando’s other damage was inflicted with determined, aggressive drives to the rim.
With Smart not there to pester Orlando’s ballhandlers, and with the shot-swatting Williams not lurking to gobble up attempts near the basket, the Magic attacked with confidence. They finished with 54 points in the paint.
“When they’re getting out in transition,” Tatum said, “they can be pretty dynamic.”
Tatum helped lead a quick comeback, however, and Boston pulled within 97-95 on his 3-pointer with 6:20 left in the fourth. Then the Magic regained control with a 10-0 run that was capped by a Markelle Fultz layup, and Boston was never a threat again.
Paolo Banchero had 23 points and Wendell Carter Jr. added 21 to lead Orlando, which shot 51.2 percent from the field and 40.7 percent from the 3-point line.
“Every game you’ve got to continue to do those things [right], and you’re going to run into teams,” Mazzulla said. “I think it says more about Orlando, the way they played tonight. They were physical, they had an edge to them and I thought they played very well.”
It was easy to brush off this loss following the nine-game surge that preceded it, as well as Boston’s notable absences. But the Celtics were fortunate to steal wins against the Warriors and Raptors over the last two games.
Brown was asked whether he sees any concerning trends emerging, and he shook his head.
“We’ve just got to find ways to win games and stay the course throughout the length of the season,” he said. “I think that’s the most important thing. We have guys in and out the lineup with different injuries and just trying to stay as healthy as possible. Also trying to continue to play sustainable, good basketball.”