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Howard, Nelson step up to avoid sweep, keep Magic's hopes alive

BOSTON -- What took so long? That was the only surprising element of Orlando's stubborn 96-92 overtime victory Monday night in Game 4 of the Eastern finals. It was an exhibition of DwightHoward's strength, JameerNelson's leadership and their team's balance and depth. Now that the Magic have avoided a sweep, the next question is whether this win may lead to three more that would be far more memorable.

"A lot of times people say,'You can't think about winning the series, you have to win one game,"' said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. "I've never really bought into that. If you don't believe you're going win the series, then it's just too easy to let go. Yeah, you've got to play it one game at a time. But you have to have a belief somewhere that you can win the series. Otherwise there's just not enough to sustain you and to keep you going in a game."

Which was his typically eloquent way of saying his team believes it can be the first team in league history to survive three opening losses. "At some point somebody is going to come from 3-0 down and win a series," he said. "The only thing I knew for sure was it would start by winning Game 4."

They've had every reason to believe, which was why the losses at home followed by the shameful 94-71 rout here in Game 3 were altogether unimaginable coming into this series. The surprise wasn't the high level of Boston's play but rather the absence of spirit by a Magic team that had no business caving. What had become of their leadership? At long last Nelson (23 points, nine free throw attempts and nine assists) and Howard (32 points, 14 free throw attempts, 16 rebounds and four blocks) would answer that question firmly and positively while playing 43 minutes each.

Howard's words to Van Gundy will be remembered for a long time should the Magic spend the remaining week finishing what they started Monday. "He told me right before the game, bent over to me on the bench and said, 'Look, I may need a rest earlier than usual tonight. I'm going to go as hard as I can and get one,"' said Van Gundy. "So we did rest him earlier than usual. Then in the fourth quarter he said he needed one, and I said, `No. Thanks for going hard, but no."'

Howard spent the first three games searching for his voice, for the right way to lead. In Game 2 he tried to laugh in between plays in hope of keeping things light, and that didn't work. This time he fulfilled his potential like a Samson with hair, elbowing or wrapping a backhand around Kevin Garnett or Kendrick Perkins like columns to be torn down. Over the second half he raked Garnett across the face, then dropped Garnett to one knee with an elbow to the back of the head, then prevented a layup so hard across Perkins' forearms as to threaten to fold him backwards in half as Rajon Rondo stood over his teammate and berated a referee for enabling such violence.

"Me and Jameer showed our leadership by just playing hard," said Howard. "We never stopped losing faith in each other. It's not about points or anything like that. Just showing everybody that hey, follow us, we'll lead the way."

Mr. Inside was the muscle and Mr. Outside -- Nelson -- was the brains of this outfit. Rondo clearly was limited by spasms in his right leg, forcing him to the locker room a minute before halftime and holding him to nine points, eight assists and little of his usual authority over the game. But his issues do not diminish the renewed determination Nelson showed as the Magic ran out to an early eight-point advantage. They had been bludgeoned in the opening quarter of each loss so badly that their 9-5 lead in Game 4 was, to that point, the Magic's largest advantage of the series. "Jameer Nelson dominated this entire game," said Boston coach Doc Rivers. "He went wherever he wanted to on the floor."

Nelson listened to the MVP chants that serenaded Rondo as he made a pair of free throws to put Boston in front 76-74. Over the ensuing 5:33 of regulation Nelson responded by alley-ooping a pair of dunks to Howard, draining a three of his own and driving inside for a pair of free throws to help eventually force OT. That's when he finished what he started with a pair of enormous threes, including one banked off the glass. "I didn't call the bank shot," said Nelson. "I misjudged where I was -- I was kind of for the first time wide open, and it shocked me. I rushed my shot, but it went in."

"We're kicking ourselves because we had great opportunities," said Celtic guard Ray Allen, who combined with Paul Pierce for 54 wasted points. Pierce had 32 points (11 of 19 inside the arc and 10 free throws) to go with 11 rebounds, but he and the Celtics ruined a chance to avoid another trip to Orlando when he failed to release the ball to Rondo alone at the three-point line with four seconds remaining, choosing instead to turn the opposite way before he dribbled into a trap and lost control at the regulation buzzer. Rivers could see that Pierce's proposed pick and roll out top with Allen was doomed because their teammates failed to space the floor. "Half our team was standing next to Paul," said Rivers. "We executed poorly throughout the game. We didn't make the next rotations, we didn't make the next pass. It was amazing how bad we were execution-wise and still had a chance to win that game."

But win they did not. "Definitely there's no need to panic," said Allen. "We like the position we're in. It's just always a lesson in humility. We have to take care of the small things, and they'll add up to what we ultimately want."

Now Orlando has a chance to present a similar argument in their locker room. Win the next game at home and now the pressure is on the Celtics to close out Game 6 at home. Isn't this how the 2004 Red Sox launched their postseason comeback from 3-0 down to the Yankees? Imagine how much better Orlando can yet play by realizing normal production from Vince Carter, who was 1 of 9 for three points and three turnovers.

"The way I look at it now, we've got to take one game at a time," said Rivers. "But if they're looking at it, they have two home games and we only have one. We've just made it more difficult for ourselves. But listen, no one said this was going to be easy. We've made it tough now. So that's fine. We just have to get on the plane, go watch film and get ready for the next one."

The certainty created by Game 3 has been diminished. Another NBA Finals probably waits ahead for the Celtics. But probably won't be a soothing term if they play another game like this one.

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