By Ian Thomsen
May 05, 2009

The opening 27 minutes were all about Kevin Garnett, the injured All-Star forward of the Celtics. The concluding 21 minutes were all about Jameer Nelson, the injured All-Star point guard of the Magic.

For 27 minutes, the Celtics played without energy or courage, which is why they found themselves down 65-37 early in the third quarter. For the next 21 minutes, the Magic played without a brain, and so they were outscored 53-30 down the stretch.

In other settings, the absence of a brain, heart and courage will end with Dorothy waking up with an ice bag on her head. Here in Game 1 Monday it resulted in a 95-90 Orlando win (RECAP | BOX) to seize homecourt advantage in the Eastern semifinals from the defending champs. It also reminded both coaches what they are missing.

"For the first 30-32 minutes, we played the best we've played all year," said Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy. "And then for the last 16 minutes, we played as poorly as we possibly could at both ends of the floor.''

To switch genres, it was like watching It's a Wonderful Life, as if the Magic didn't know already how bad things would be for them if Nelson had never been born. They turned the ball over in their own end. They couldn't get the ball across half-court in eight seconds. They stopped running their offense while the Celtics simply started running.

"I give all their guys credit," said Van Gundy of the Celtics' revival, "but Rondo was the guy who turned everything around. His pressure: We couldn't get into offense, he was forcing turnovers and he had us very unorganized.''

The absence of Orlando's leader since February, when Nelson suffered his season-ending shoulder surgery, may be the gravest issue facing this team. Apart from the Lakers or Cavaliers, no opponent as currently situated in the playoffs would have the talent to dominate this Magic team -- if only they had Nelson making threes, running the pick-and-roll and taking responsibility for telling everybody else what to do under duress. Which is not to criticize Rafer Alston, the midseason replacement at point guard whose arrival in a trade from Houston kept Orlando from free-falling over the final two months: After all of the damage suffered in the second half Monday, it was none other than Alston who bailed out the Magic with a nasty baseline runner to restore their lead to 91-85 with 1:47 remaining.

Alston was highly effective in the first half, as well. Under his guidance, four teammates -- led by Rashard Lewis with 14 points -- had outscored Glen Davis and Stephon Marbury, who were the unlikely high first-half scorers for Boston. The Magic upped their 54-36 halftime lead by an additional 10 points over the next three minutes as J.J. Redick and Lewis (who finished with a team-best 18) scorched Boston from the three-point line. Not so long thereafter Celtics coach Doc Rivers told Rajon Rondo, "You're not playing with speed.''

Then that changed. It was as if he attacked the hole of Nelson's absence. The Celtics went from attempting zero free throws in the first half to going 22 of 26 from the line. Rondo would go 2 for 12 (a performance matched crucially by Ray Allen), but stats were momentarily irrelevant. All of a sudden he led the Celtics at both ends, the crowd suddenly awoke like 18,624 babies -- hoarse cigarette-smoking babies -- waking up from a bad dream, and the scoreboard even showed the Boston miracle worker Doug Flutie cheering on the Celtics courtside, which seemed an especially bad omen for Orlando. The scrambled plays were leaning Boston's way, including one particularly reckless sequence in which Rondo tried to save time on the clock by waiting to pick up an inbounds pass -- only to see Alston diving to the ball first. Fearing Rivers's wrath, Rondo wrenched the ball free and from his knees passed to Brian Scalabrine at the other end for a three, which would bring the Celtics within 89-83 when Pierce (team-high 23) hit a three of his own moments later.

As Rondo returned to the bench he was reminded of what he and the Celtics have been missing for the last two months: Garnett in his long tailored suit was leaning down to scream in his ear for almost turning the ball over for no good reason.

"The end of the game puts you at a point that you're not ecstatic," Van Gundy admitted. "But we got the win. It's still a much better night for us than for them."

The Magic did build that 28-point advantage, and all of Garnett's constructive criticism could not take that away from them. Coming off the extravaganza of seven overtime periods in seven games against Chicago not 46 hours earlier, the Celtics entered this game with an obvious emotional hangover. Garnett probably would have done something to prevent that, while also squelching the Magic's ability to get any kind of shot they wanted.

"When you shoot zero free throws for a half, that means your team is completely unaggressive," said Rivers. He added: "We played flat, we played with no energy in the first half, but it wasn't fatigue. Obviously, I've got to do something to get them going better.''

But how much can he do? The Celtics are now 0-3 against Orlando since Garnett's injury. Combined with the season-ending injury to Leon Powe, they are thin up front against the league's dominant center in Dwight Howard (16 points, 22 rebounds and three blocks) and power forward Lewis, a mismatch nightmare. As the playoffs progress and the opposition improves, the Celtics must play harder defensively to overcome Garnett's absence. But he more than any Celtic was responsible for them playing harder defensively.

Which missing star -- Garnett or Nelson -- will turn out to be the more valuable player? This is one award neither team wants to win.

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