By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010; D01
ORLANDO -- The first four games of the Eastern Conference finals were just warmups, practice, an opportunity for the Orlando Magic to regain its rhythm after a prolonged layoff between series. How else can you explain what happened on Wednesday, when the Magic walloped the Boston Celtics with the same fervor, three-point shooting precision and defensive tenacity that it used to record playoff sweeps over Charlotte and Atlanta?
It was a wonder if that Magic team was ever going to show up again. But after a resounding 113-92 victory in Game 5 at Amway Arena, the Celtics have to wonder if it will ever leave.
Orlando's performances in the first two rounds were discounted as the Magic lost the first three games against the Celtics, including a complete no-show in Game 3. Now the Magic is beginning to consider the improbable.
"At this point we believe can win the series," Jameer Nelson said after scoring a game-high 24 points as Orlando closed within 3-2 in this best-of-seven series and forced Game 6 at TD Garden on Friday. "The momentum is back in our favor, but it all comes down to how hard we're playing and how determined we are, not giving up."
No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win an NBA playoff series, but Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy has been telling his team that someone eventually had to pull off the feat. Why not the Magic? Orlando moved another step closer, winning its second game in a row with team captains Nelson and Dwight Howard once again leading the way. Howard had 21 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks, sending a message early when he chased down Rajon Rondo, the Celtics' swift point guard, to slap a shot against the backboard.
"What leads your teammates is playing that hard and people follow along," Van Gundy said. "I think both of those guys as our captains came with great energy and great, great toughness. And that is the leadership you need."
The Magic played its best all-around game since completing a dominant sweep of Atlanta, as it shot 52 percent from the floor, connected on 13 three-pointers and had the Celtics searching for answers and screaming at officials all night.
"Their backs were against the wall when they were down 3-0, a lot of people were doubting them. They just came out fighting and we're not handling the punches," Rondo said.
Even in its previous overtime victory in Boston to bring the series back to Orlando, the Magic needed Rondo to have his worst game this postseason, the usually clutch Paul Pierce to fumble a last-second shot at the end of regulation and a perhaps-lucky bank-shot three-pointer from Nelson in the extra frame. But when the teams arrived at Amway Arena for Wednesday's game, it was if they had swapped roles. Suddenly, Magic played with the confidence of team holding a 3-1 lead, while the Celtics stumbled around flustered, like a team on the verge of elimination.
Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said after the 96-92 overtime loss in Game 4 that his team made it hard for itself. After the Celtics won the first two games of the series, Paul Pierce confidently said that he didn't want to come back to Orlando, winking into the camera after proclaiming that he wanted to close out the Magic in Boston with a sweep. Howard responded: "Pride comes before the fall. Remember that."
On Wednesday, Rasheed Wallace led the Celtics with 21 points off the bench, Rajon Rondo added 19 points and Pierce had 18, but Boston may have lost more than just one game. Kendrick Perkins was ejected with 36.1 seconds left in the first half after picking up his second technical foul -- the first in a silly dust-up with Magic reserve Marcin Gortat, and another for angrily stomping around in protest of a foul call.
The ejection was costly because it removed the Celtics' best low post defender against Howard, but it also may hurt Boston for Game 6. Since Perkins has seven technical fouls this postseason, he faces a one-game suspension. An NBA spokesman said the league plans to review both of Perkins's technical fouls in Game 5.
"Didn't think he deserved either one, but he got them," Rivers said, refusing to get overly critical of the officiating. "Perk plays hard. He looks mean. He's a great guy. I'll leave it that."
The Celtics lost another defender against Howard after the Magic center knocked out one of Glen "Big Baby" Davis's teeth with an elbow when he was attempting a spin move in the post. Davis, Perkins's primary backup, was on the floor, rolling around in a daze, before he finally popped up. He rumbled down the court and collapsed in the arms of official Joey Crawford, succumbing to a concussion, and missed the rest of the game. Rivers said Davis will be examined before it is decided whether he can return to the lineup.
"I don't know what kind of test they are going to do with Baby because he's a little delirious half the time anyway," Rivers said, jokingly. "So I don't know how he's going to pass a test. I'm worried about that."
Rivers eventually had to call on Shelden Williams when Wallace fouled out with 4 minutes 49 seconds left in the game and the Celtics trailing by 17 points. Rivers said Wallace "tweaked his back" during the game, adding that the prospect of being limited in the front court is "not a pleasant thought."
Rashard Lewis said on Wednesday morning that a viral infection was to blame for his lackluster play in the first four games, in which he scored just 28 total points. Lewis claimed that he would need intravenous fluids in order to play in Game 5. Lewis scored 14 points and carried the Magic through a critical fourth-quarter stretch while Howard rested. Lewis scored on three consecutive possessions to give the Magic a 91-78 lead.
Shortly thereafter, the Celtics got desperate, as Rivers started intentionally fouling Howard, a shaky free throw shooter. The strategy helped the Celtics get within 10 points with 6:48 remaining when Wallace hit a three-pointer from the left corner.
But Magic decided to start scoring before the Celtics had a chance to foul. Nelson hit a three-pointer, then Mickael Pietrus forced a turnover and dunked and Nelson hit another three-pointer to give Orlando a 104-86 lead. And with that, the Magic was able to make preparations for another flight to Boston, rather than vacation.
"It's all about us believing that we can do this, one game at a time," Nelson said.