ORLANDO, Florida - The pressure is back on the defending champions. Dwight Howard had 23 points and 22 rebounds after challenging Stan Van Gundy's coaching strategy, and the Orlando Magic beat the Boston Celtics 83-75 on Thursday night to force a decisive Game 7.
Rashard Lewis had 20 points, and Hedo Turkoglu made a 3-pointer to highlight an 11-2 run to close the game for the Magic, who haven't made it to the conference finals since 1996.
"We came out from the get-go ready to play. That's what it takes," Howard said. "It's all about defense and we played great defense."
Rajon Rondo finished with 19 points, 16 rebounds and six assists, and Paul Pierce scored 17 for the Celtics, who led by 10 points in the second half before falling apart. Game 7 is Sunday in Boston.
Boston Celtics' Paul Pierce (R) shoots over Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard in the first quarter of Game 6 of their NBA Eastern Conference basketball playoff series in Orlando, Florida May 14, 2009. [Agencies]
The Celtics also failed to close out the Chicago Bulls in Game 6 of their first-round series, a triple-overtime epic. Boston will now go the distance in its first two series for the second straight year.
Boston had chances.
The Celtics held the Magic scoreless for more than five minutes to start the third quarter, building a 10-point lead on a jumper by Glen "Big Baby" Davis. But Howard led the Magic back, with a backspin alley-oop from Turkoglu that highlighted a spurt to end the third quarter. Orlando took its first lead with 8:38 remaining in the fourth.
Pierce hit three straight jumpers to give Boston a 73-72 lead with about four minutes to play, but the Celtics were done in by their 3-for-18 shooting from 3-point range and 19 turnovers. Ray Allen missed all seven attempts from behind the arc.
Howard blamed Van Gundy for not getting the ball more after the Magic's Game 5 collapse, when they blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter.
"You've got a dominant player, let him be dominant," Howard said.
He came out trying to back up his strong words.
He scored the first eight points of the game for the Magic, including a pair of dunks that pumped some life into the home crowd. Howard finished 9-for-16 shooting, but it took time for him to get some help.
"I got myself open and ran the floor and that's what I have to do," Howard said.
Boston was ready from the first bounce.
The Celtics were again the scrappier team for most of the night, diving for loose balls and outmuscling the Magic for rebounds. Pierce's layup capped a 13-2 run that pushed Boston's lead to 31-22 early in the second quarter.
It wouldn't last.
Finding their shots from outside, the Magic scored seven straight points, getting 3-pointers from reserves A.J. Johnson and Mickael Pietrus. Orlando eventually tied the game just before the half on a short jumper by Rashard Lewis, but Pierce's free throws helped put Boston ahead 46-45 at the break.