ORLANDO — The Celtics left Amway Center Sunday night feeling guilty. They played well enough to win in overtime, 116-110, beating the rebuilding Orlando Magic for their second consecutive win.
At this point, the value of wins cannot be overstated. Style points are meaningless. Yet the Celtics knew they were outplayed, outhustled, and in stretches out-executed by a team with 11 new players on its roster.
The Celtics led by as many as 12 points in the first half, looking as if their days of taking lesser opponents lightly were over. Suddenly, the Magic began hitting shot after shot — 13 of 17 in one stretch — and the Celtics were forced into scramble mode.
A team that clearly invites adversity avoided an embarrassing loss with a late fourth-quarter rally and then effective defense and precise execution in overtime. The Celtics needed a Kevin Garnett jumper to send the game into extra time and then used a Paul Pierce 3-pointer along with an uncontested Rajon Rondo layup for a 113-108 lead in OT.
Pierce finished with 23 points, Garnett 24 points with 10 rebounds, and Rondo 15 points, 16 assists, and 9 rebounds.
Road wins in the NBA are never to be valued lightly but the Celtics are getting tired of making matters so difficult with mental lapses.
“You know what? We were just so upset we played [so poorly] the second half, man, that just starts with myself,” said Garnett, who carried the Celtics with 12 fourth-quarter points. “It starts with Paul and Rondo. I was kind of upset about that. More in overtime, we felt like more of an urgency to execute. And I thought we got really back to the basics. We made shots.”
When asked if the Celtics need gritty games like this to build character, Garnett said, “No, no, I’m not a firm believer in that but it does build character as a team and as a team, young and old, from personnel, you do get better and you learn something from it.”
Coach Doc Rivers marveled after Wednesday’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs at how effective his team’s defense is when the players decide to focus on stopping the opponent. After the Magic invigorated the crowd with that 13 for 17 spurt from the field, they combined to make 9 of 32 shots in the fourth quarter and OT.
Orlando scored 34 points in the third quarter and 28 for the remaining 17 minutes.
“It was one of those mental toughness games,” Pierce said. “You saw you was down late and coach put the starters in and we had to say ‘forget what’s been happening’. We let a team that’s dangerous back in the game so we gotta find a way to win, so that’s what it’s all about: find a way to win, not feeling sorry for ourselves late, giving up a pretty good lead and just find a way to win. And that’s what we did.”
The Celtics actually trailed, 97-91, with 5:36 left after former Celtic Glen Davis sank two free throws. Jason Terry’s 12-footer then sparked a 9-0 run, with Garnett scoring 6 points during the surge. The final basket was a perfectly executed alley-oop with 2:38 left for a 100-97 lead.
Mere seconds later, the Celtics inexplicably left J.J. Redick open at the 3-point line after Terry was picked and nobody switched out to help. The former Duke marksman drained the tying 3-pointer. After a frantic exchange, Davis drove the baseline, put one of his customary head fakes on Garnett, and scored the go-ahead basket with 1:34 left.
Garnett quickly countered with a jumper and he had another chance to put the Celtics ahead but missed. And Pierce then had a chance to win in regulation with a jumper but his release against a tightly defending Arron Afflalo hit front rim.
The Celtics dominated the OT as the Magic had trouble scoring, most surprisingly Jameer Nelson, who missed a wide-open 3-pointer that could have evened the game late in OT.
The first half was dominated by the Celtics, hitting shot after shot and playing strong enough defense to hold a double-digit lead. But the combination of Redick and Nelson began heating up, the veteran Orlando duo was unstoppable in the third quarter as the Magic turned a 66-55 deficit into an 82-80 lead by quarter’s end.
Nelson went on a personal 8-0 run to end the period, scoring on a conventional 3-point play, then draining a 3-pointer and finally a streaking layup as the Magic seized the momentum.
“Overall, we didn’t play very well,” Rivers said. “They played great. They played hard. It’s like I said before the game, if you don’t enter this game when you play them and think hard basketball, you’re not going to win, whether you have more talent or not. That was a lesson for our guys. I thought our [late-game] execution won the game for us, and it should. We’re a veteran team.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.