The 2009-10 NBA season is nearing the halfway point and it has become clear who the major players are in the Eastern Conference. The perennial favorites are the current Atlantic, Central, and Southeast leaders who have been projected all season long to win their respective divisions.
No matter how you rank them, the Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Orlando Magic are all serious contenders to represent the East in the 2010 NBA Finals. Even the most casual basketball fan is relatively certain that all three teams will represent their cities in the playoffs.
Most columnists will spend the second half of the season trying to predict the final standings of each team. If the past two seasons are an indicator of what’s to come, it’s not essential to the eventual outcome of the playoffs.
Three things matter significantly more in the NBA Playoffs than the regular season: luck, injuries, and match-ups. What follows is a breakdown of these factors.
Regardless of a team’s talent on paper, virtually every NBA squad that makes it deep into the playoffs has caught a break or two. Whether it’s an advantageous no-call in the final seconds of a game or a desperation shot that banks in as the buzzer sounds, very few teams have dominated an NBA Playoffs run from start to finish without a little luck.
The 2008 Boston Celtics are the perfect example. Casual followers may remember the Celtics easily handling the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. Many of us, however, can recall several moments where Boston’s storybook “Big Three” championship journey was nearly derailed.
Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals – the Pierce/LeBron “duel” – was put out of reach in the final seconds by a Pierce free throw that clanged hideously against the rim, hung in the air, and somehow defied even the shooter’s expectations as it dropped in. If Pierce misses that shot and the Cavaliers steal the series, the public perception of the Celtics’ acquisition of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen as well as LeBron’s 2007-08 crew is undoubtedly altered. Boston would have exited early in the playoffs rather than hoisting Banner 17 to the rafters the following October and LeBron might already have a ring and a Finals MVP to add to his impressive stats.
In the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, the Celtics and the Magic both experienced their fair share of injuries to key players. The Magic lost one of the NBA’s top point guards, Jameer Nelson, and still managed to adapt and play quality basketball into the playoffs. The Boston Celtics won the 2008 Finals despite a possible series-swinging injury to Paul Pierce in Game 1.
In 2008-09, the Celtics followed up the league’s greatest 30-game start (27-3) with a plague of injuries including Kevin Garnett’s extended absence for an abdominal strain as well as the subsequent season-ending knee injury.
Let’s face it, the 2009-10 Cavaliers are a single late-season ankle sprain or knee injury away from complete irrelevance. As talented as LeBron James’ supporting cast is, they’re not raising the Larry O’Brien trophy above their heads in the Quicken Loans Arena if LBJ is wearing a three-piece suit.
The real story in the 2009-10 Eastern Conference playoff race is one of key match-ups. Certainly arguments can be made for a team’s depth, experience, and other factors, but the Eastern Conference Champions will be decided, ultimately, by key match-ups.
Does it matter how Cleveland’s bench would match up against Boston or Orlando’s? Surely the Celtics and Magic have superior bench players when compared to the Cavaliers, but they will lose a playoff series against Cleveland if a match-up is not made to at least slow LeBron down.
As for experience, Boston has four of the top all-stars of the early 2000’s. If this is 2003, the Celtics win the championship in 16 games. Unfortunately, it’s 2010 and despite all of their experience, Pierce has lost his speed advantage, Rasheed Wallace is currently a sub-.300 three-point shooter, Allen has been designated as more of a long-range specialist than ever before, and Garnett is even beginning to appear almost human. Are they a contender? Does their combined experience and veteran influence on role players add to the team? Certainly. Veteran knowledge comes with a price tag of increased vulnerability in some areas, however.
The definitive question is, who does each of these three squads fear the most in the post season?
Cleveland has proven that it can battle head-to-head with Boston in the regular season and the playoffs. The past two years, it seems that contests between these two largely would be a draw. On any given night, either team is able to eke out a win against the other.
The Cavaliers have no answer, however, for a healthy Jameer Nelson-Dwight Howard duo. Mo Williams is an above average point guard, but not particularly strong in shutting down play-makers of Nelson’s caliber. Mix in Dwight Howard’s physical dominance down low and Cleveland has some serious concerns.
The Shaq experiment seems to be a relative bust. Shaq is still a solid big man, but he is no match for the younger and more athletic Howard. To make matters worse, Orlando has even seemed to make Vince Carter relevant again. Carter’s improved defensive effort may even be enough to have an impact on LeBron’s ability to score at will. He certainly won’t be shutting down LBJ, but he could make life difficult enough for the superstar that it swings a game or even two in the series.
Orlando’s squad might not be living up to their strength on paper, but this team is a match-up nightmare for Cleveland in the playoffs where teams have time to dissect tape and try different schemes to slow or stop their opponents. Since Cleveland is so LeBron-centric, this gives Orlando plenty of opportunities to adjust. Even though he is the best all-around player in (at least) the Eastern Conference, LeBron is still a single man. It takes a team to win a championship.
Cleveland Cavaliers’ Most Feared Opponent: Orlando Magic
Judging by the last paragraph, you more than likely guessed correctly that I don’t view Cleveland as Orlando’s biggest hurdle in the post season. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the Magic are chomping at the bit to draw the Cavaliers in the second round, but it’s not their most-feared opponent.
The remaining Eastern Conference powerhouse, the Boston Celtics, is the most troublesome pre-Finals match-up for Orlando. As discussed earlier, the two key match-ups for Orlando will be Nelson and Howard. Boston has shown in games past that it can effectively shut down the Magic’s go-to pick and roll game.
The key to Orlando victories over the Celtics in recent seasons have been abnormally strong three-point shooting and solid perimeter defense. When healthy, Boston can throw not one but three separate big men at Dwight Howard who can guard him one-on-one. This is an incredible feat in a league that regularly throws ineffective double-teams at the athletic big man.
Kendrick Perkins has regularly caused a break in Howard’s composure when these two teams meet which has resulted in several technical fouls. Add Garnett and Wallace to the picture and you have three experienced bigs who know the key to shutting down Howard: force.
Howard’s game is surprisingly built around footwork and finesse for a player of his stature. Nothing has knocked him off his game more than teams that habitually pound him down low on every touch.
Similarly, Boston effectively neutralizes Nelson’s impact by matching his offensive prowess with an equally skilled defensive point guard. On the defensive end, Nelson is no match for Rondo’s speed or inside game. Jump shooting continues to be a weakness for Rondo, but the Celtics coach Doc Rivers has successfully implemented schemes to punish teams that attempt to cheat off of Rondo and float a defender to clog lanes and orchestrate double teams.
Vince Carter attempting to stay with Paul Pierce throughout the series poses yet another match-up dilemma. Although both are all-star caliber players, Pierce has been to the promised land and has a Finals MVP trophy to prove he knows what it takes. Carter has only a history of questionable injuries and burned bridges. Carter has shown signs of improvement, but any unbiased observer is going to select Pierce’s intangibles over those that Vince has displayed throughout his career.
Orlando Magic’s Most Feared Opponent: Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics know that they can eke out close Game 7 performances in a tight series. It’s what they’ve grown accustomed to in the past two post seasons. As previously mentioned, a Cavaliers-Celtics contest is ultimately a coin flip.
Boston can’t be too afraid of Orlando catching fire in four of the seven games while simultaneously locking down the Celtics’ perimeter players. Will this happen in one game? Based on past experience, it’s probable. Two games? It’s a possibility. Three or four? Highly unlikely. The Magic would have to play their best basketball of the season against a Celtics team crippled by key injuries or a horrible cold shooting streak.
I know what you’re thinking. Palumbo’s just trying to make the case that his hometown team is a better match-up than any of its conference foes. If you thought that was where I was going, you’re dead wrong.
In fact, the Celtics have already had a taste of how scary its most imposing match-up can be. The 2007-08 Atlanta Hawks took an eventual championship team to the brink of collapse in a first round series against the Boston Celtics who boasted the best regular season record in the NBA. It took the Celtics seven full games in that first round battle against the Hawks who featured a sub-.500 record (37-45) in the regular season.
That was then, this is now. Sporting the same key pieces – namely Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, and Josh Smith (honorable mention: Marvin Williams) – the Atlanta Hawks are a streaky-but-scary 2009-10 team that has steadily improved since the 2008 Playoffs. Sure Childress fled the Hawks for the Greek League’s Olympiacos Piraeus, but the Hawks are a young team that has grown stronger and closer through several years of mismanagement, poor coaching, and overall indifference from local fans.
Joe Johnson has one of the best strokes in the game and matches up favorably against the Celtics’ aging Ray Allen. Josh Smith is one of the league’s most electrifying above-the-rim players and can protect the paint with intensity and strength that rivals Kevin Garnett. In the open court, Garnett simply cannot keep up with Smith’s speed and athleticism.
The 2008 playoff match-up between Bibby and Rondo was an extremely compelling contrast of style and experience. In the 2010 Playoffs, this match-up is the only glaring hole I see for the Hawks when going toe-to-toe with the Celtics.
Add a stellar third-year player in Al Horford - who was properly seasoned in his three years playing college hoops for the Florida Gators and was a key member of the first team to repeat as NCAA Champions since Duke’s 1991-92 teams - and the Celtics are facing a very young, yet relatively experienced team.
The Hawks get the edge in my estimations because they are the same type of physical and multi-dimensional team that the Celtics are known to be, however, they are younger, fresher, and arguably have more hunger to prove themselves.
Boston Celtics’ Most Feared Opponent: Atlanta Hawks*
Barring a serious injury or incredibly bad stroke of luck, the 2009-10 Eastern Conference Champions will be the team that receives the most favorable match-ups throughout the playoffs. The Miami Heat are the only real sleeper that could upset one of the four teams mentioned in this column. Whether this happens or not, the NBA is undoubtedly headed for one of the tightest sets of Eastern Conference Semifinals and Finals series in years.
Feel your team was given the shaft? Think your squad matches up better than I give them credit for? Have I totally omitted a potential key match-up? Now’s your chance to speak up. You’ve seen my take and now I want to read yours.
*Author's Note: Tune in to the Celtics @ Hawks Friday January 8th on ESPN/ESPN360 and a rematch on Monday January 11th on NBA TV for a preview of this match-up.