ORLANDO, Fla. – Too slow? Too old?
Try two wins from the NBA finals.
Indeed, the Boston Celtics look like they saved their best this season for when it mattered most.
“I know,” Boston’s Paul Pierce said. “It’s starting to look that way.”
Pierce scored 28 points, Rajon Rondo had 25 and the revived Celtics again avoided a late collapse to take a commanding lead in the Eastern Conference finals with a 95-92 victory over the Orlando Magic in Game 2 on Tuesday night.
Boston bullied and bruised its way to a 2-0 series lead on the road against a Magic team that had won 14 straight until this series.
After being hampered by injuries for much of the season, often showing their age, the Celtics are now just two wins away from their second finals appearance in three seasons.
“I think we are becoming the team that started the season,” Rivers said. “The team that started the season was pretty good.”
Maybe even good enough to take down the defending conference champion Magic.
Dwight Howard had 30 points, and Vince Carter and J.J. Redick scored 16 apiece for the Magic, who overcame an 11-point deficit to take a brief lead in the fourth quarter. But they couldn’t hold it.
Jameer Nelson’s desperation 3-point attempt airballed at the buzzer, sending fans to the exits in silence.
“I won’t stop believing,” Howard said. “And I won’t let my teammates stop believing.”
Game 3 is Saturday night in Boston.
“Our fans won’t let us relax,” Pierce said. “We’re going to try and close it out in four games.”
The Celtics buckled down just enough to hold in this one.
Ahead 11 points early in the fourth quarter, that almost wasn’t enough. The Magic, just as they did in Game 1, found their rhythm late.
They went on a 13-4 run to trim Boston’s lead to 85-83 with about six minutes left. Carter’s jumper with 4:05 remaining gave Orlando a 90-89 lead with 3:35 remaining, and then the Celtics summoned their championship form again.
Kevin Garnett and Rondo made consecutive jumpers, and after Nelson made a layup, Pierce answered with two free throws that put Boston ahead by three.
Carter missed two free throws with 31.9 seconds left that cost Orlando dearly. It must have felt all too familiar to Magic fans who watched Howard’s damaging misses at the stripe in Game 4 of the NBA finals last year and Nick Anderson’s four bricks in Game 1 of the 1995 finals.
Only another footnote for Boston’s remarkable history.
Two years removed from their 17th NBA championship, the Celtics, once thought too old to contend for another title, have found their footing again. After ousting LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team with the league’s best record, Boston is showing no signs of stopping.
“Just think our mindset was to be ready for the type of intensity they would bring after losing at home,” Pierce said. “We know the Magic are a talented team and we won’t take these two wins for granted.”
Before the final heave, Redick also made a crucial mistake by dribbling to half court before calling timeout. That wasted seconds and forced the Magic to take the ball out from beyond half court.
The result was a shot that didn’t reach the rim.
“It would have made a big difference,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “We said in the thing to call a timeout. We didn’t make the right play there at the end.”
Redick took the blame.
“I made a mistake,” he said. “I didn’t hear the whistle initially. When I didn’t hear it initially, I just kind of went, then I realized we should have called a timeout. So that was my fault.
Boston again started fast.
The Celtics, who took a 20-point lead in Game 1, went ahead by 11 in the first quarter. It wasn’t until backup center Marcin Gortat and Howard — a rare combination this season — teamed together that Orlando showed any fight.
With the Magic feeling intense postseason pressure for the first time this year, Orlando went on a 16-2 run behind the two centers.
All the pushing and pulling would finally spill over.
Pierce was knocked in the head hard by Howard on a layup attempt in the second quarter, a punishing display of anger that the Magic center rarely shows. Pierce got up after a minute, clearly upset, his headband twisted to the side. Howard was called for a flagrant foul.
The Celtics would go ahead by five after Howard picked up his third foul moments later. Before they could deliver another big blow, Matt Barnes hit a 3-pointer as the shot-clock buzzer sounded in the final seconds for Orlando to trim Boston’s lead to 53-51 at the half.
The Celtics are feeling good, but not overconfident.
“The feeling of the team right now is just focus,” Pierce said. “Only thing we did was win two games.”
NOTES: Magic coach Stan Van Gundy defended his close friend and Florida Marlins manager, Fredi Gonzalez, for benching Hanley Ramirez after the star shortstop didn’t hustle for a ball. Van Gundy said Gonzalez was “perfectly justified” and he and the Marlins’ manager exchanged text messages about the situation. … Even though Celtics coach Doc Rivers lives permanently near Orlando and is a former Magic coach, family ties apparently come first with his children. “They’re all more dad fans than NBA fans,” Rivers said. “At least that’s what they tell me when they ask for allowance.”