ORLANDO, Fla. &
Surprise, NBA. The first team to advance in the Eastern Conference playoffs wasn't the heavily favored Boston Celtics or the battle-tested Detroit Pistons.
It was the Orlando Magic, who beat the Toronto Raptors 102-92 on Monday to close the first-round series in five games. And it was built on the back of a 22-year-old center whose improvement seems to show no bounds.
Dwight Howard had 21 points and 21 rebounds, his third 20-20 game in five postseason games, and the Magic advanced to the second round for the first time in 12 years.
Orlando hadn't won a playoff series since Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway led the team to the Eastern Conference finals in 1996. The Magic played 28 postseason games in the intervening years, winning only eight.
"To finally get over the hump and get out of the first round, it means a lot for us," Howard said. "But we're not satisfied. Our goal is to win a championship, so we're going to keep playing and try to play the same way to get that goal."
Howard helped limit Raptors star Chris Bosh to nine rebounds and 16 points on 7-of-19 shooting, one game after the Raptors forward set playoff career highs of 39 points and 15 rebounds.
"He's a phenom; he's the best center in the league," Bosh said of Howard, his friend from USA Basketball. "He's probably the strongest guy in the league, and he knows how to use his body. It doesn't surprise me at all. I've seen him play this whole series, I've seen him play this season."
In other NBA playoff games on Monday, Atlanta beat Boston 97-92 and the Los Angeles Lakers defeated Denver 107-101.
T.J. Ford and Carlos Delfino both scored 14 points for the Raptors, while Jason Kapono had 13 and Jose Calderon 12.
"They beat us on the boards. They've got a guy in the middle who cleans up a lot of their misses," Toronto coach Sam Mitchell said. "It's hard to ask much more of our big guys when they're battling this guy the way they did with his size and strength, quickness and athleticism. Congratulations Orlando; they played great."
The Magic will face the winner of the Detroit-Philadelphia series, which is tied 2-2, in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Keyon Dooling's free throw after a technical on Bosh put the Magic ahead 73-66 with just under a minute left in the third quarter, and Orlando kept the lead until midway through the fourth. Delfino hit a jumper and Bosh made two free throws in four trips to the line, plus a hook shot over Howard, to draw the Raptors within 84-82.
The Magic, who had the fourth-best 3-point percentage in the NBA this season, struggled again from long range (9-of-32), but made them when it counted. Keith Bogans and Jameer Nelson each hit one and Howard added a layup as the Magic answered with an 8-0 run over 3:13 to open a 92-82 lead, then its largest of the game.
It was enough room to let them coast.
"We didn't even have our best night, and to be able to win it in five games, I'm really proud of them," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said.
Nelson scored 19 points and Rashard Lewis had 18 points and 13 rebounds for Orlando. Hedo Turkoglu just missed a triple-double with 12 points, eight rebounds and nine assists, while Maurice Evans scored 12 points and Bogans added 11.
While the Pistons-Celtics series continues, the Magic will have two days off from practice.
Howard grinned broadly, still unable to believe it was true.
"It's just an unbelievable feeling," he said. "We did something I feel that hasn't been done here in a while."
Hawks 97, Celtics 92
Joe Johnson scored 35 points &
20 in the fourth quarter &
and Josh Smith added 28 points and a team playoff-record seven blocks as host Atlanta evened the series at two games apiece.
Game 5 is Wednesday night in Boston.
The Hawks, who had the worst record (37-45) of any playoff team, overcame two double-digit deficits to beat a team that won an NBA-leading 66 games during the regular season.
Johnson took control in the final quarter. After Smith's jumper put the Hawks ahead to stay 81-79, Johnson scored nine straight points.
Ray Allen led Boston with 21 points and Kevin Garnett added 20.
Lakers 107, Nuggets 101
Kobe Bryant scored 14 of his 31 points over the final 51/2 minutes and Los Angeles completed its sweep of Denver. Pau Gasol added 21 points in the Lakers' first sweep of a playoff series since beating New Jersey in the 2002 NBA finals.
J.R. Smith had 26 points for the Nuggets, the first 50-win team to ever be swept in the first round.
Bryant scored nine straight points to give the Lakers a 97-96 lead. Luke Walton's wide-open — gave the Lakers a 100-96 lead with 2:37 left.
Marcus Camby's first points since the series shifted to Denver came on a 3-pointer with 33 seconds left, cutting the Lakers' lead to 103-101, but Gasol dunked and Bryant added two free throws with 18 seconds left.
Pistons, Celtics still fighting; Magic finishes off Raptors
ORLANDO, Fla. &