Celtics bully Magic into corner in East finals

ORLANDO, Fla. – They’re laughing at the Orlando Magic now, taunting them on the way out of Amway Arena and onto the NBA Finals. Between the end of Game 2 and the joyous bus ride to the Boston Celtics’ charter flight, it appeared that Paul Pierce(notes) gleefully punched four acidic words into his Twitter account: “Anybody got a broom?”

Somehow, this declaration found its way onto Pierce’s page. The keepers of his website insisted later this was the work of a hacker, but, nevertheless, those words were waiting for Dwight Howard(notes) on Tuesday night. It’s Pierce’s page, his responsibility. The brave public face of a privately shattered franchise, Howard plopped down on an interview podium and had Pierce’s alleged parting shot read back to him.

Vince Carter missed two critical free throws in the closing seconds of Game 2.
(Getty Images)

Howard scrunched his face and asked: You want me to respond to that? Everyone wanted Howard and these Magic to respond to something in this series. The Celtics came into these Eastern Conference finals, did the unthinkable and beat the Magic in back-to-back games and Howard had to summon everything within him to keep his composure.

“Pride,” he sniffed, “comes before a fall.”

And so does a mortified Vince Carter(notes) at the free-throw line with 31.9 seconds left, missing two shots with a face flushed with fear. So does a brainlocked J.J. Redick(notes) failing to call a timeout with 6.9 seconds left, dribbling a few steps down the floor and leaving the Magic without a chance to advance the ball after a timeout. The Magic would get a lousy, desperation 3-point heave at the buzzer and lose 95-92.

Yes, the Magic are delivering a Biblical meltdown in this series, the kind of humiliating, embarrassing loss that shakes a franchise to its core. Whoever was responsible for the tweet, it hardly mattered: Pierce had stared into the television cameras at game’s end and blurted to Boston fans: “We’re coming home to close it out.”

Pierce had 28 points for the Celtics, an offensive onslaught that’s come once the burden of guarding LeBron James(notes) had left his life. He’s reborn with the ball in his hands, with the Celtics’ crisp, precise passing delivering him shots in his sweet spots throughout the floor. As much as anything, Boston is bursting with bravado and backtalk, these old disagreeable Celtics rising from what had once felt like a lost season.

The Celtics had gone through the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games, beating them so badly that James is closer to leaving than staying and the coach, Mike Brown, is going to get fired. The Celtics are running roughshod through the Eastern Conference, torching everything in their wake. They’re belligerent and disagreeable, frustrating the Magic in so many ways.

Privately, the Celtics never believed these Magic could match up with them. They knew they could take away so much defensively, and they’ve done it. To think how demoralized the Magic must be to have Howard bust out for 30 points and still lose Game 2. Now, Orlando must withstand the torrent of criticism that’ll come between now and Game 3 on Saturday. Carter had been brought to Orlando in a trade with the New Jersey Nets for these moments, these late-game shots, and even the Celtics privately raised eyebrows over how discombobulated he looked on the line.

Everyone could see his two free throws never had a chance. Carter’s weak in the clutch, his legacy further cemented in Game 2. No one shrinks like him.

“Just don’t remind me,” Carter grumbled, when someone reminded him he was an 84 percent free-throw shooter on the season. Just don’t remind him? Oh, he’s going to be reminded every day this week.

These Celtics made every smart play in the final minutes of the game, forever playing patient, smart basketball. Rashard Lewis(notes) is the $118 million man who can’t get his shot in this series, whose disappearance is the reason the Magic have to sit and listen to Twitter taunts about getting swept.

“Everybody’s trying to be the hero,” Lewis said. “Everybody’s trying to make the tough play. Hey, I wanted to do the same thing, but I just couldn’t get my hands on the ball.” Lewis had five points, and his passivity makes him look too much like a willing victim. This is the problem for the Magic. They’ll sit around town for three days, take a beating and fly to Boston for a raucous Game 3 on Saturday.

Lewis and Carter aren’t cut of a cloth that should inspire confidence they can dig the Magic out of this trouble. Howard and Jameer Nelson(notes) can fight through the carnage of Games 1 and 2, but the rest of these Magic are probably too fragile. They’re dizzy now. They never did see the Celtics coming, and maybe no one did. Orlando had it too easy with eight straight playoff victories and it’s worked against them in the conference finals.

The Celtics walked into Amway Arena with a 2-by-4, and just started pounding on the Magic. The Magic are downright dazed, staggering and on the brink of a TKO. The Celtics jumped Orlando, and they’re halfway home to a possible meeting with the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.

Perhaps Pierce’s tweet had been hacked, but the message still spoke to his own words on the floor at game’s end: The Celtics are going home to sweep these Magic, pushing harder and harder on a revival that came suddenly, that felt like it was out of nowhere. Orlando had danced and preened its way over those paper Bobcats and Hawks, but everything changed in 48 hours in Florida.

Boston chopped down LeBron James, and now they’re going after Dwight Howard, too. It’s a mess for these Magic, and all they could do late Tuesday was sit back, seethe and know there isn’t a damn thing they could do to stop the snickering. Between now and a season lost, the Magic must make these Celtics respect them. So far, the Celtics’ private insistence is true: Orlando can’t beat them when they’re playing their best basketball. So far, it’s played out perfectly. If Pierce didn’t say it, then maybe he should’ve: Break out a broom for the sweep that no one saw coming, for a Celtics franchise full of so much bully and bravado that the rest of the NBA will have to go back to hating them again.

Pride comes before a fall, Dwight Howard declared on Tuesday night. Yes, it does. The Magic need to show some on Saturday night, need to make a last stand for a season that already feels like it’s going, going and gone.

Adrian Wojnarowski is the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Adrian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, May 19, 2010