BOSTON – As Elfrid Payton’s last second shot got swallowed up by Amir Johnson and ultimately wound up in the hands of Al Horford as time expired, there was a gush of wind that seemed to blow through the TD Garden.
No, it wasn’t someone opening a door to the brisk, chilly elements of the outside.
Just the opposite, actually.
It was a collective exhale, a sigh of relief on the part of the Boston Celtics who slammed the door shut on Orlando’s hopes of pulling off an upset with Boston edging the Magic 117-116. It was Boston’s 13th straight home win over the Magic, giving fourth-year coach Brad Stevens his 49th victory this season – the most he has had as the Celtics’ head coach in a single season.
But inside the locker room, the mood was far from jovial or jubilant despite it securing their 0.5 game lead over Cleveland for the best record in the East for another day at least. No one had to tell them that they were fortunate – extremely fortunate – to beat an Orlando team that’s playing out the regular season after failing to qualify for the playoffs for the fifth straight season.
“Any way we can get a win, is what we’re looking forward to,” said Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas who led all scorers with 35 points. “They’re a different team; they’ve been playing a lot better since the all-star break and we knew that coming in. We just had to change it up a bit in the second half and play harder than they did. And we did that.”
In the two previous games against Orlando this season, the Celtics won each by 30 points. Beating a team that badly, Boston anticipated the Magic would put up a much better fight on Friday night.
Unfortunately for the Celtics, they were right.
“We played very well tonight against a team that is number one in the Eastern Conference, on their home court,” said Magic guard Elfrid Payton who had a double-double of 12 points and a career-high 15 assists.
While there were certainly positives for the Magic (27-49) to take away from Friday’s game, Aaron Gordon wasn’t trying to hear such talk.
“I’m tired of moral victories; no more moral victories anymore,” said Gordon who led the Magic with 32 points and 16 rebounds. “For me if it’s not a win, it’s a loss.”
And for the Celtics, no matter how much they struggled, no matter how long they spent playing catch-up against Orlando, in the end they did just what they had to do in order to get the victory.
Having gone through a game like this at the end of the season, and finding a way to win when a significant chunk of the game they were trailing, is the kind of late-season test the Celtics could use prior to the playoffs.
“Especially coming off the loss (to Milwaukee on Wednesday) we just had,” said Boston’s Jae Crowder. “As the season winds down, that’s the kind of basketball it’s going to be. It’s trying to get us prepared for the postseason.”