The rundown (a quick look at the postgame headlines)
Doc Rivers says Celtics can't claim to be better than Magic
Paul Pierce notes lopsided third quarter hurt more than his foot injury
Kevin Garnett can't diagnose Boston's third-quarter struggles
Opposing view: Third quarter is mirror image for the Magic
Loose balls: Bench in focus; Orlando thrives on 3-pointers
Doc: C's haven't proven they're better than the NBA's elite
The troubling part wasn't that the Celtics fell to the Orlando Magic Sunday, dropping to a dismal 3-9 against the teams with the top eight records in the NBA this season.
No, the troubling part came when a voice inside the Boston locker room suggested the Celtics were still better than Orlando, despite a 1-3 record against the Magic this season, including two losses at home.
"One of the guys said, 'We’re better than Orlando,' and I said, 'No you’re not. That’s a bunch of crap,'" Celtics coach Doc Rivers said following the game. "They beat you three games, two at your place. They’re better. They knocked you out of the playoffs last year.
"Orlando's better than us right now. Atlanta's better than us right now. [The Los Angeles Lakers are] better than us right now. Those are the teams that have beaten us. That doesn't mean that we can't be better than them at some point. But right now, those teams are better than us.”
Ray Allen said he wasn't overly concerned about Boston's struggles against the elite, but agreed with Rivers' assessment.
"I'm not concerned, we feel in every game we've played [against the elite competition], we put a good brand of basketball out there," said Allen. "What we're not doing now is doing it for 48 minutes.
"Right now we can't say that we're better than Orlando. We can't say we're better than Atlanta. We can't say we're better than the Lakers. They beat us. It's all about what's in the pudding and right now we don't have the proof."
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Pierce: Foot's fine, Celtics' third-quarter performance is not
Celtics captain Paul Pierce returned from a left mid-foot sprain that sidelined him for two games last week to register 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting (though only 1 of 6 from 3-point land) with 4 rebounds and 3 steals over 30 minutes of action.
"The foot was a little bit sore, but I don't think it affected too much of my movement," said Pierce. "Like I said, it's soreness on the top part of my foot, so as far as my lateral movement, up and down, it really didn't matter."
Asked about his rhythm on the floor, Pierce again deemed himself in good health: "I felt fine out there," he said.
Pierce's plus/minus stat suggests he wasn't a liability with the foot injury, even as Rivers suggested he labored at times. Pierce finished at minus-2, the best among all five starters.
Pierce seemed more concerned about the team's struggles than his own, but noted that poor second-half defense led to poor offensive choices, including a reliance on 3-pointers that didn't fall (5 of 16, 31.3 percent).
"You don't play any defense and then the offense wasn't there," said Pierce. "We can't let one thing affect another. We're a defensive team first and we shouldn't allow teams to score 36 points, especially at home. I think we got a great rhythm and a great focus on defense in the first half. We really ran the guys off the shooters, but then we opened up the 3-point game and we're not really a 3-point team. We just didn't recover to the shooters and that was the game right there."
Garnett: No excuse for ugly third quarter
Celtics forward Kevin Garnett said he couldn't pinpoint the exact reason why the Celtics have struggled in third quarter this year, and particularly Sunday against the Magic, but he's not happy with the results.
“I have no idea, but collectively, we all share that it's something we've got to get better at," said Garnett. "There's no excuses for that. There's no answers for that and we've just got to lock in. For some reason third quarters have been kicking our behinds this year. We've just got to get better at it, period.”
As for Sunday's forgettable third quarter, Garnett said the team simply has to be better than what it showed.
"[Outscored] 36-11, that's the game right there," he said. "We called some different sets, did some different things, but for the most part, we just didn't get it done. I think we're better than 11 points. We've definitely got to put forth a better effort in executing, and we will. You hate to see that third quarter come like that. I'm sure we’re going to watch film and learn from it and then apply it, but we're better than 11 points."
Opposing view: Mirror images
When the Magic look in the mirror, they see the Celtics staring back.
Both teams have endured similar struggles in the new year, but the most frightening similarity might have been what unfolded in the third quarter. Two days ago, the Washington Wizards outscored the Magic 39-17 in the third quarter of a 92-91 win that featured the visitors erasing a 15-point halftime deficit.
On Sunday, the Magic flipped the script in Boston.
“Mirror image of what happened to us the other night at home," said Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy. "Big lead at the half, get absolutely annihilated in the third quarter. People want to know how you can let that happen, now you've got someone else you can ask besides us. It happens. I mean, teams get on a roll and then it's tough to stop them. Obviously a great, great third quarter [for us Sunday]. I thought Dwight [Howard] played a terrific second half after playing less than eight minutes in the first half. Just a great win for us. We've got a lot of guys who contributed. We held them to 35 percent [shooting] in the second half, defended much better, played much harder. A good win for us.
"In a matter of three days, I've seen the worst quarter we've had since I've been here in three years and the best now in three years. Yeah, I thought that was the best quarter we've played since I've been here. We played great.”
Added Dwight Howard: "I think we just came out with a lot of intensity. I was upset about how we played in the first half, it wasn't as well as we wanted to. We came out in the second half with a lot of energy, defensively moved our feet, we were talking more, and that's what got us the big lead."
With the return of Marquis Daniels, who missed 28 games after left thumb surgery, Boston's bench looked revitalized in the first half, connecting on 9-of-16 shots (56.3 percent) for 18 points before the intermission. After halftime, the Celtics' reserves combined to go 4-of-13 (30.8 percent) for 12 points. Glen Davis finished with nine points, but connected on 4-of-11 shots, while Daniels logged eight points on 4-of-7 shooting in a little more than 12 minutes. Boston utilized only its core second unit, with Brian Scalabrine and Shelden Williams logging DNP's (coach's decision).
Second-year players J.R. Giddens and Bill Walker were inactive with the returns of Pierce and Daniels. Giddens is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery (and noted before the game all is going well), while Walker is the victim of a crowded bench.
The Celtics finished with a 42-28 advantage in points in the paint, but Orlando's long-range shooting (11 of 22 from 3-point land) killed Boston.
Boston outscored Orlando 78-60 outside of the third quarter.