ORLANDO — Jameer Nelson was unable to get anything going. Dwight Howard was on the bench for a good chunk of the second half with foul trouble. Shots were not falling. And Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were a thorn in Orlando’s side. It was a typical game against the Celtics. Offense was at a premium and the new-look Magic were relying on Brandon Bass of all people to carry the offense.
The Celtics controlled the game throughout, leaving little memory of a 13-0 Magic run to start the game. Then Jameer Nelson — the Magic’s own Mr. Big Shot — came through.
Nelson drained a 3-pointer with 2:32 left to bring the Magic within two points on a night where they trailed by as many as 12, but it felt like so much more. Nelson was one for seven to that point and had no rhythm whatsoever (Twitter was buzzing with calls to insert and start Gilbert Arenas — an overreaction if there ever was one). So when he found it, he found it at the right time.
“Jameer is never afraid,” Stan Van Gundy said. “He’s made a lot of big shots here and he’s tough in those situations. And he’s been in them a lot. No fear whatsoever.”
Nelson followed with a three-pointer two possessions later to give the Magic a three-point lead. A lead, they would not surrender for a gritty come-from behind 86-78 victory at Amway Center on Saturday.
“These are two of the biggest wins we’ve had so far this season, especially against these type of teams,” Nelson said. “The composure that we showed and during the course of the game — especially in the second half — was a good sign for us.”
Orlando did not crumble as they have throughout the month of December when teams go on on a run against them. Instead this team looked like the 2009 team that went to the Finals — hanging around until the shots started falling. It was something that took a while on this Christmas Day, but when they finally did the Magic poured it on.
They scored 29 points in the fourth quarter — to just 15 Celtics points — and shot 64.3 percent. Orlando scored 21 points on its final 11 possessions, missing just one shot in the final six minutes to pull out the seemingly improbable win. To that point in the game it felt like the Celtics were rolling despite the lead remaining in single digits throughout.
“These are the type of games you have to win, when you are not shooting well and you aren’t doing well on the offensive end,” Nelson said. “It didn’t go well for them either on the offensive end. Those games you have to grind out.”
Dwight Howard was on the bench with fouls, Gilbert Arenas and Nelson could never get going. It was a typical slogfest with Boston.
To their credit, the Magic did not stop fighting. And it was the type of effort the team and its fans have grown accustomed to in the Stan Van Gundy era. These are the type of grind-it-out games teams simply must win no matter the circumstances.
It did not matter that the Magic shot 39.4 percent for the game, 11 of 29 from beyond the arc and did not score 20 points in either quarter of the first half. This was a game where the team stuck together and kept fighting.
Stan Van Gundy challenged the team to remain mentally tough and match the Celtics physicality. He especially challenge forward Brandon Bass to go after Kevin Garnett (who turned in a superb game with 22 points and five rebounds). Bass though was no slouch either. He led Orlando with 21 points, shooting 8 for 15 from the floor and grabbing nine rebounds. He did what he could in Dwight Howard’s stead as the Magic’s superstar was saddled with foul trouble and frustration.
“The last two weeks, things have been tough for us,” Bass said. “Tonight it showed our character, it showed that we’re heading in the right direction. For us to be successful, I’ve got to be aggressive and productive in some parts of the game — whether it’s defending, rebounding, scoring, bringing energy — I’ve just got to be productive.”
That character will be thrown around a lot after a game like this. It finally felt like Orlando had returned to the team it was in 2009 (not to keep harping on it). The Magic have not had many efforts like this in the last year and a half.
Hedo Turkoglu was pacing the Magic with 16 points and Bass was playing well around the basket. But it was all a struggle.
Dwight Howard scored only six points — on 1-for-4 shooting — and had 11 rebounds. He was knocked off by a rare 10-second free throw violation in the first quarter and went 4 for 10 at the line. But in the second half, after being frustrated with fouls, Van Gundy said he did not let it affect him down the stretch and affected the game without scoring down the stretch. It is shown in the Celtics scoring only 15 points in the fourth quarter and shooting two for nine in the paint during the final 12 minutes.
The Celtics were playing physically with everyone in the paint and challenging the Magic to match that. After giving up a 13-0 run to start the game, Boston came back with its own 15-0 spurt to take control of the game — something the team would not give up until the fourth quarter.
The comeback and gritty finish was a good sign for a team that is still figuring each other out and becoming a team — not to mention improving defensively.
“In a lot of ways it was good because they’re going to be nights like the other night where we get it rolling,” Van Gundy said. “But there’s going to be a lot of nights against good teams where you are going to have to really fight hard to stay in the game and do everything you can and that’s what we had to do tonight. I thought we showed very good resolve to stay in the game and didn’t let it go. We can’t just play when it’s easy. It’s going to be hard against a team like this and you got to hang in there and fight through it and get the job done.”