By Chris Mannix
May 23, 2010

BOSTON -- We may never get an accurate answer as to why the 2010 Celtics have motored through the postseason looking a lot like the '08 version.

Maybe Kevin Garnett's balky right knee really did recover like Adam Banks' wrist. Look coach ... no pain!

Maybe someone whispered in Ray Allen's ear that the difference between a strong playoffs and a lousy one is about two years and $15 million.

Maybe Rasheed Wallace tossed the burgers and Budweisers in favor of Powerbars and protein shakes.

Opponents have certainly played a role in Boston's revival. Miami had checked out and paid the bill on the '09-'10 season before they got to Boston for Game 1. LeBron'selbow (up to nearly 12,200 followers on Twitter) gave Boston an edge before the series and K.G.'s one-sided winning of the matchup with Antawn Jamison sealed it.

The thumping of Orlando, highlighted by Boston's 94-71 win in Game 3 on Saturday, is a little harder to explain. The Magic breezed through the first two rounds of the playoffs, racking up an 8-0 record without breaking a sweat. They had the most dominant big man, two-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, and a supporting cast of gunners who shoot three's about as well as they shoot layups.

But the Magic have been no-shows at the Eastern Conference finals. They got thumped on their home court in Game 1, lost their composure in Game 2, with Vince Carter missing two free throws in the final minute and J.J. Redick pulling a reverse Chris Webber and failing to call a timeout late in the game, costing the team crucial court positioning.

Before Game 3, the Magic were loose. Howard sauntered around the locker room in his Under Armour underwear, humming R&B songs and goofing on Chinese reporters. Jameer Nelson cut a hole in a towel and wore it as a shirt, a look that is most aptly compared to an extra on a Star Wars set.

To a man, the Magic expressed confidence. And to a man, the Magic folded on the floor. The game opened with Paul Pierce knocking down a spinning jumper, and the Celtics were off to the races. They jumped out to a 7-0 lead and by the end of the first quarter the lead had ballooned to 27-12.

Sure, Boston was good. But in this series, the Magic have come unhinged. With Kendrick Perkins, Wallace and Glen Davis battling Howard one-on-one, Rashard Lewis has often found a Garnett-sized hand in his face. In Game 3, Lewis had more fouls (5) than points (4).

Lewis is, in many ways, the face of Orlando's struggles, but he has plenty of company. Carter has looked tentative, unwilling to absorb the contact that comes with playing against Boston's physical D. Twice on one possession in the first half, Carter turned down two point-blank shots in favor of kick-out passes. Meanwhile Pierce and Rajon Rondo assaulted the lane, helping Boston rack up a 34-22 advantage in points in the paint.

Howard, too, has succumbed to Boston's physical play. He followed up a 13-point stinker in Game 1 with an impressive 30-point performance in Game 2. But in Game 3 -- with Perkins, Wallace and Davis hanging off Howard's shoulders like they were a coat hanger -- he was back to his old tricks, sinking 3-of-10 field goals, 1-of-4 free throws and finishing with a Marcin Gortat-like line of seven points, seven rebounds and three blocks.

"Perk, Rasheed and Baby are doing a hell of a job," said Doc Rivers. "They are taking a lot of hits down there. Dwight is a load."

The hustle points aren't there, either. Rondo gave Jason Williams a two-second head start after a loose ball in the second quarter before chasing Williams down, diving, picking up the ball and banking in an acrobatic layup.

"If that doesn't energize your team," said Rivers, "nothing will."

Orlando's perimeter D is lazily closing out on Boston's shooters, allowing the Celtics to knock down 54.5 percent of their three-point attempts in Game 3.

"They were one step ahead of us on every play," said Stan Van Gundy. "I thought they worked harder than we did. I thought they out-competed us. I thought we sort of went sideways mentally and our effort dropped like everything else."

Still, Orlando's problems are largely a result of Boston's shocking play. The Celtics are on the brink of their second NBA Finals appearance in three years because, after an embattled regular season, they have come together and gelled as a unit.

They have Rondo, who has seized the superstar mantle from Pierce, Garnett and Allen and run with it.

They have Perkins, who may be the best low-post defender in the league.

They have a suddenly superior bench boosted by the consistent efforts from the often inconsistent Tony Allen and Davis.

And they have a Big Three playing with a sense of urgency only a trio of 30somethings looking at the end of the line can understand.

"We're motivated by what's at stake," said Pierce. "We see the big picture as a team. You feel it. You feel it in practice. You feel it when we're on the court. The guys smell it right now. They know what it feels like to be in a championship. You're starting to see urgency really, really come out the closer we get."

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