ORLANDO — Turns out, the distance from invincible to underdog is shorter than it once seemed.
You remember the Orlando Magic, right? The guys who hadn't lost a game in a month? The guys who beat Atlanta worse than any team had ever been beaten in a best-of-seven playoff series? The guys who were taking smug out for a ride?
Those same Magic players are in a world of trouble today.
Orlando lost 92-88 to Boston in the opener of the Eastern Conference final on Sunday, in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the final score. The Celtics were up 3-0 in the first 30 seconds and took it wire to wire.
"I don't think we were prepared for the level that they were ready to play," said Magic guard Vince Carter, who had a team-high 23 points. "They were ready to go from the jump, and we weren't on their level."
Not to sound like an alarmist, but losing Game 1 of the conference final on your homecourt is typically a fatal blow. In the last decade, 80 percent of the teams that lost Game 1 at home never lived to see the NBA Finals.
Now that doesn't mean the Magic's case is hopeless, but it's fair to say the mood in this series has shifted quite a bit in the span of an afternoon. The Celtics may be old and creaky, but they play defense as well as any team in the league. Just ask the guy who is packing his bags and looking for the first flight out of Cleveland.
"Our guys aren't going to fall apart," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. "Hell, they got down 20 in this game and didn't collapse."
As they did to LeBron James and the Cavaliers, the Celtics completely shut down the opponent's best player and then dared the other four guys on the court to do something about it.
In this case, it was Magic center Dwight Howard who was searching for explanations that wouldn't come out sounding like excuses. Say what you want about Howard creating opportunities for his teammates — and that is a reality — he did not do nearly enough on the offensive end.
Put it another way, backup center Marcin Gortat had as many field goals in 14 minutes as Howard had in 39.
"I got into a little wrestling match with all of those guys. Like I said earlier, that's playing to their advantage," Howard said. "They want me to wrestle and fight with them. That takes me off my game."
Orlando's entire inside-out offense is built on the idea that Howard requires special attention. So if you double-team Howard, that should leave some shooters open on the perimeter. And if you try to cover Howard with one man, he should win that battle most of the time.
The problem is Howard did not do his part Sunday. The Celtics played him man-to-man with a succession of big bodies, and Howard looked out of rhythm from the beginning. By the end, he looked frustrated.
Between them, Kendrick Perkins, Rasheed Wallace and Glen "Big Baby" Davis committed 12 fouls while holding Howard to 13 points, and they also forced him into seven turnovers and 3-for-10 shooting from the field. This is after Howard shot an NBA playoff series record 84.4 percent against the Hawks.
"We feel like we have guys who can cover Dwight, such as Perk and Rasheed and Baby," Boston forward Paul Pierce said. "That allows us to get up on their shooters and be more aggressive and not allow them to open up the 3-point game."
And that's exactly what happened. The Magic did not hit a 3-point shot in the first half, and finished 5-for-22 (22.7 percent) from long range. How bad is that? Orlando shot a lower percentage in only four games during the regular season. And it lost all four of those games, including another one against the Celtics.
"That's who we are," Pierce said. "We're a defensive team."
What's important to understand is this was no fluke. The Celtics are not particularly flashy, but they understand what it takes to win in the postseason. Most of their top players may be over 30, but they all have NBA championship rings in their lockers.
The few times Orlando made a run Sunday, one of those doddering old Celtics stepped up to keep the momentum from swinging too far. It was Ray Allen at the end of the second quarter, and Kevin Garnett at the beginning of the third quarter and Pierce in the final minutes.
In a way, this team is perfectly built for the playoffs. The Celtics may be a little too old to keep up with teams for 82 games in the regular season, but the pace in the postseason is more to their liking.
"Well, we are old. A lot of our guys, with the different injuries during the regular season, made it very difficult," Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "Quite honestly, so far in these playoffs, with the days off and the rest and the games in between where you can prepare, it's allowed us to prepare defensively."