So now, for the first time in the 2010 playoffs, we'll find out how Orlando responds to a loss. In fact, we'll find out how the Magic respond to their first loss since April 2, as their 14-game winning streak ended Sunday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Boston's defensive game plan in the 92-88 victory was equal parts obvious and exceptional. Simply put, the Celtics removed the three-point shot from Orlando's arsenal -- no small feat, considering the Magic took more threes and made more threes than any other team in the NBA this season. Boston's withering defense on the perimeter led to a rare oh-fer in the first half, as the Magic missed on nine three-point attempts, finishing 5-for-21 from beyond the arc for the game.
Of course, when a team expends that much energy 20 feet from the basket, there must be a trade-off, and indeed there was. Boston, as has been its wont, played Dwight Howard straight up in the post. There, too, the Celtics were successful, harassing Howard into a 3-for-10 shooting day with the combination of Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace. Howard finished with a double-double (13 points, 12 rebounds), but was largely ineffective.
It wasn't for a lack of opportunity, however. Stan Van Gundy will certainly take some heat in the coming days for going back to Howard again and again in the post, but with the three-point line essentially roped off, I'm not sure where else the Magic could have gone. Vince Carter was aggressive in spurts, and Jameer Nelson provided a second-half spark en route to 20 points and a quietly surprising nine rebounds, but Boston's intensity on both ends of the floor kept this game out of reach nearly from the opening tip.
J.J. Redick said after the game: "When you haven't done it for a few days, you forget how much you have to put into it." He added Orlando's energy level never matched that of the Celtics, which is exactly the impression many of us had in the media seats.
Redick was choosing his words carefully, as if hesitant to call out any of his teammates, but his point was well-made -- Boston won every hustle play, got every 50-50 ball, and seemed to come up with every key rebound and key shot, a sign of a team playing with more urgency. Carter drew the same conclusion during his media session, saying: "I don't think we were prepared for the level that they were ready to play."
In short, the Celtics played like the championship team that Orlando hopes to be.
Was Orlando rusty from yet another long layoff? Possibly. However, to suggest the Magic weren't treating this opening game with enough urgency would minimize Boston's preparation and effort, both of which were outstanding.
There's a cliche in the league that says a series doesn't really start until somebody wins on the road. Well, the Eastern Conference finals are officially underway. Look for a different Magic team to emerge on Tuesday. There's no way Orlando will be unprepared for Boston's level of effort. The Celtics opened this championship bout with a flurry of jabs; now we'll see just how strong the Magic's jaw really is.