Orlando Magic edges Boston Celtics in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals

Dwight Howard, center, was everywhere his team needed him be, finishing with 32 points and 16 rebounds in the Magic's victory.
Dwight Howard, center, was everywhere his team needed him be, finishing with 32 points and 16 rebounds in the Magic's victory. (Elsa/getty Images)
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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

BOSTON -- In order for the Orlando Magic to avoid an embarrassing sweep to the Boston Celtics, it had to get nastier. It had to get grimier. It had to fight back.

Dwight Howard did all three on Monday night, as he slapped Kevin Garnett in the face while fighting for a rebound, tossed Kendrick Perkins to the ground like a raggedy satchel and greeted Rajon Rondo's drives to the basket with vicious swats. Howard played the role of villain all night, throwing elbows and throwing down dunks, and walked away victorious as agitated fans -- anticipating that the Celtics would easily get ushered to their 21st NBA Finals appearance -- left TD Garden in disappointed silence.

Howard had 32 points, 16 rebounds and 4 blocks as the Magic staved off elimination with a gritty 96-92 overtime win. Finding himself in the right spot all night, Howard was again where he needed to be in the final minute, when he slid in front of Perkins to rebound a Jameer Nelson miss to secure the victory.

"It wasn't over. Even though we knew we were down 0-3, you have to win four games to win the series," said Howard, adding that he spoke with two-time NBA champion Hakeem Olajuwon for inspiration. "I kept telling myself, 'Don't give up. Just keep fighting.' I didn't want to give up because I just felt like there was a lot of people pulling for us to keep going. That was it."

Paul Pierce led the Celtics with 32 points and 11 rebounds, but he missed all three of his shots in overtime, as Boston shot just 2 for 10 in the extra frame. Nelson added 23 points and nine assists as the Magic snapped the Celtics' six-game playoff winning streak and avoided its first Eastern Conference finals sweep since the Chicago Bulls eliminated Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway in the 1996. Game 5 is Wednesday in Orlando, where the Magic lost the first two games of this series.

Nelson, who had been relegated to being a prop in the Rondo highlight reel, hit back-to-back three-pointers in 43 seconds to give Orlando a 92-86 lead with 1 minute 59 seconds left in overtime.

"I was more aggressive and not worried about mistakes," said Nelson. "We have a long battle in front of us, but it can be done, one game at a time."

The Celtics missed their first five shots in the extra period before Ray Allen hit a three-pointer to the cut the deficit in half, but Howard then came back rebound his own miss and make a layup over Glen "Big Baby" Davis. Allen (22 points) then made another three-pointer to bring Boston within 94-92, but Howard grabbed an offensive rebound and made his putback with 52.7 seconds remaining. With an opportunity to get closer, Garnett threw a cross-court pass to Pierce that soared high out of his reach and out of bounds. "It was amazing how bad we were execution-wise and still had a chance to with that game," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. "That was amazing to me. But listen, no one said this was going to be easy. We've made it tough now."

For three games, the Celtics made Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter all but disappear, limited Howard twice and had Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy questioning his ability to get through to his team. But the Magic played with a greater sense of purpose with its season on the brink. Lewis, held to just 15 points in the first three games, scored in double figures for the first time this series and finished with 13. Carter continued to be a ghost (three points on 1-for-9 shooting and three turnovers), but J.J. Redick came off the bench to score 12 points, including two three-pointers in the fourth quarter.

"When you're down 3-0, what you're fighting against is human nature to just sort of let it go," Van Gundy said. "Our guys didn't do that. They stayed in the fight. We made some big plays, and did what we had to do to get a very, very tough win."

The Magic appeared to be in control of the game with 2:24 remaining in regulation, when Howard dunked while getting fouled by Davis and made the free throw to push Orlando ahead, 85-78. But Pierce responded by driving around Redick for a one-handed dunk. Then, after Howard missed a jump hook, Allen buried a three-pointer to bring the Celtics within 85-83. Nelson made just 1 of 2 free throws, before Pierce drove the ball down the lane and plowed through Nelson for a layup. Nelson picked up his fifth foul on the play and Pierce made the free throw to tie the game at 86.

Nelson and Pierce both blew opportunities to win the game in regulation, with Nelson making a bad pass, Pierce missing a jumper and Nelson missing an off-balance jumper with 17 seconds remaining. Pierce had a chance to take the last shot, but instead lost his dribble to Nelson as time expired, setting up overtime.

"We weren't doing the things that got us the 3-0 lead. We kind of felt we was pressing to get the win," Pierce said. "We made our bed, we got to lay in it and move on. We don't really want to come back here for Game 6."

Rondo made the hustle play of the postseason in Game 3 when he dove between Magic reserve point guard Jason Williams's legs to save a loose ball, hop up and make the layup. That play ignited a resounding 23-point victory that had the Celtics fans looking ahead to an NBA Finals rematch against the Los Angeles Lakers as they chanted, "Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!"

But Rondo was limited to just nine points and eight assists on Monday, playing most of the game in foul trouble. With Rondo not around to harass him for most of the first half, Nelson asserted himself and remained aggressive when Rondo returned. He blew past Rondo for a driving layup, but after Rondo answered with a driving layup of his own, Nelson quickly pushed the ball up the floor to Howard for a fast-break dunk that gave the Magic a 48-42 lead. Rondo tried to strike back with another driving basket, but Howard swatted his shot.

The game got testy in the third period. Rondo missed a reverse layup, but in the battle for the rebound, Howard raked Garnett across the face and picked up a personal foul. Garnett immediately shoved Howard, who started talking back and explaining himself. Garnett didn't want to hear it and continued to shout at Howard. Magic forward Matt Barnes attempted to separate the two, but Garnett repeatedly slapped away Barnes's hands and was called for a technical foul. Garnett pleaded with the officials that Howard went after his eye and Celtics fans booed after seeing the replay.

"We didn't win this game just to win a game and say we were in this series," Howard said. "We want to make this a series and win this series. We all believe that."

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