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Magic-Celtics does little to change perceptions about either contender

Four injured Celtics watched their team play its worst first half of the Kevin Garnett era Sunday. Among those injured was Garnett, who is not one to brood in silence. Imagine the running dialog in front of the lockerroom TVs as he, Rajon Rondo, Tony Allen and Brian Scalabrine deconstructed their team's 4-11 assist-turnover ratio as well as the defense (for lack of a better term) that yielded 56.4 percent shooting as Orlando seized a 51-33 halftime lead.

"All I know,'' said Boston coach Doc Rivers, who as a rule joins the players in the lockerroom after granting them a five-minute cooling off period at halftime, "is that when I came in, Rondo and Garnett were both standing in front of the chalkboard. So I guess they said something.''

"They were telling us we were a step too slow and they were telling us we weren't into the game,'' said Celtics big man Mikki Moore in a dispassionate and highly-edited translation. "They're our teammates, so they tell it like it is. It's a different kind of frustration: They see us not playing like we should; to us we're playing hard but it's just not going our way.''

What followed was a momentary 15-point turnaround that might have threatened the Magic's self-esteem. They survived to win 86-79, but only after Ray Allen (32 points) missed an open three that would have tied the score with 40 seconds remaining. "I'll tell you, this team has a lot of heart,'' said Moore, who takes nothing for granted after a year and a half with Sacramento.

A late-season meeting of contenders like this isn't going to change the established opinions of either team. The Celtics were going to be lauded for losing because they didn't give up; the Magic were going to be criticized for going 0 for 6 from the floor over the final 4 minutes while ceding a singlehanded 9-0 run by Allen that very nearly ruined their beautiful Sunday afternoon.

The win pulled Orlando within 2 games of the second-seeded Celtics heading into the final quarter of the season. But who out there views Orlando as being in the class of the champions or the top-of-the-conference Cavaliers? Coach Stan Van Gundy thinks his team deserves more appreciation for its toughness. "That's something I never hear about,'' he said after this game. "All anybody talks about is three-point shooting. But look at our defensive numbers and see where we rank.''

The Magic entered this game ranked No. 3 in field goal defense, No. 2 in blocked shots and No. 3 in defensive rebound percentage. They also rank No. 2 (behind MikeD'Antoni's Knicks) in three-point attempts with 26.4 per game, and that's what defines them above all else. Can a perimeter-shooting team win a championship? The question is asked and answered by the Celtics, wedded as they are to the more traditional style. In football terms this game Sunday was cast as the run-and-shoot offense of the Magic vs. the Celtics, who by contrast look like they were conceived by Mike Ditka.

"They're very physical, they push and shove, they body,'' said Van Gundy of the Celtics. "When teams establish that style of play, they're allowed to do it.'' Dwight Howard (6 of 13) was held to 18 points in part because, according to Van Gundy, "they can take two hands in the guy's back and just shove him, which is what (Boston center Kendrick) Perkins does.''

The younger Magic can't develop that style because their big men -- All-Stars Howard and Rashard Lewis -- can't risk the foul trouble. In that sense, Van Gundy conceded, it is fair to refer to his Magic as a finesse team. "Dwight is built to play more physically than anybody in the league,'' said Van Gundy, but he can't afford to indulge Howard's physique. "Kendrick Perkins can be as physical as he wants.''

Resilient Orlando is 7-2 since acquiring Rafer Alston to replace injured leader Jameer Nelson. Thanks to the combined 4-for-4 free-throw shooting of Lewis and Howard over the final half-minute, the Magic left town with more proof of their nuanced toughness. The Celtics have their own issues. "We pick and choose a little bit with the focus,'' said Rivers, who thought his players were much too chatty before this game. "That's part of the championship residue, where last year every game we charted as a big game.''

Afterwards Rivers criticized himself ("a huge mistake'') for failing to start Eddie House instead of Stephon Marbury, whose uncertainty running the offense had a limiting effect on Pierce (16 points) and Allen to open the game. Boston's nine turnovers in the first quarter (having surrendered eight throughout their big win Friday against the visiting Cavaliers) included three by Pierce, who watched his passes bounce out of bounds untouched throughout the long opening half. The Magic played big with 6-foot-11 Marcin Gortat and 6-foot-11 Tony Battie off the bench to exploit the absence of Garnett; on Friday the Celtics had responded to similar tactics by making the extra pass inside to create layups for Leon Powe, but this time the paint was a no-go area. When Powe was on the verge of settling the half-court offense by working his way into the seams, he was surprised by Lewis stripping him from behind. When Perkins backed in for a short turnaround there was Howard sizing up the block like Albert Pujols on a slow-pitch softball.

When Anthony Johnson sank a 10-footer to put the visitors up 42-22 with 4:24 remaining in the half, the Celtics found themselves trailing by 20 at home for the first time since Garnett came to Boston. They were in this mess, of course, because he and Rondo were watching on TV in the lockerroom. They got themselves out of it because of whatever was said at halftime.

The goal for Orlando and Cleveland is to exploit the next couple of weeks as the Celtics rehab Garnett and the others while sorting out their rotation entering the playoffs. Rivers will sacrifice wins over the next five weeks in order to ensure good health for May and June.

"If we struggle, we struggle,'' he said. "Obviously we want home court, but we believe we can win on the road.''

The Magic have yet to earn that confidence. That's why their back-to-back Monday at Detroit -- against whom Howard is 3-16 dating back to 2006-07 -- is crucial if they hope to supplant the favorites when the games really matter.