The Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics and the rest of the Eastern Conference have sat back and endured the LeBron James Tour all season as the King of the NBA has received the well-deserved lion’s share of attention while leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a NBA-best 61 wins and winning his second MVP award in a row.
Turn out the lights. The show’s over.
James’ tour made its last stop in Boston last night as the Celtics beat the Cavs 94-85 in Game Six to “upset” Cleveland 4-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
It's only fitting that the Magic—who rained on James' parade last year with a 4-2 Eastern Conference Finals victory—would face this year's LeBron conquerors, the Celtics.
Orlando hasn’t lost a game in a month and is on a quest to win the first NBA title in franchise history.
Boston is showing its championship mettle, blowing out the Cavs on the road twice and looking to avenge a 4-3, second-round loss to the Magic in the 2009 playoffs.
Last year, the Magic won Game Seven in Boston and there was talk that the Celtics were too old to win another title.
However, the Celtics were missing Kevin Garnett, the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year, whose return to high-caliber play has spearheaded the Celts to the conference finals.
After averaging 14.3 ppg and 7.3 rpg, missing 13 games, and playing only 30 mpg while recovering from a right knee injury in the regular season, Garnett is averaging 17.6 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 35 mpg in the playoffs.
The 33-year-old’s play in game six was incredible as he scored 22 points, grabbed 12 rebounds in 37 minutes.
The emergence of Rajon Rondo is another new twist in this budding rivalry. Rondo leads all playoff participants with 11.1 apg, and his 18.0 ppg in the postseason tops Boston’s star-studded roster.
The Magic made some key changes, too. Vince Carter, an eight-time All-Star, arrived via trade and the team also added Matt Barnes, Jason Williams, and Brandon Bass.
Carter's postseason stats are very similar to his regular season numbers: 16.6 ppg with a 42.8 shooting percentage in the regular season and 16.9 ppg with a 42.9 shooting percentage in the playoffs. The Magic haven’t needed huge performances from their big-time acquisition while annihilating the over-matched Charlotte Bobcats and sweeping the Atlanta Hawks by record-setting proportions.
The Magic also welcomed back an injured player this season, as Jameer Nelson returned to the starting lineup after missing several months with a injury to his right shoulder in 2009 (Nelson briefly returned for the Finals last year, but he came off the bench).
Nelson is back with a vengeance in the NBA playoffs, averaging a team-best 20.5 ppg in the postseason and shooting at an amazing 51.9 percent clip. Nelson averaged 12.6 ppg in the regular season.
The Magic will need other players to step up as the competition gets stiffer and the Celtics bring their All-Stars to town. Boston’s Paul Pierce (16.3 ppg in the playoffs) and Ray Allen (17.4 ppg) should become bigger factors as the postseason progresses.
Leading the Way
Boston is chock-full of leaders who understand the pressure of winning and the determination, resiliency, and focus that it takes to capture a championship.
Head coach Doc Rivers led the team to an NBA title in 2008. Allen, Garnett and Pierce have all been leaders of their teams and seemingly became franchise cornerstones when they entered the NBA.
Rondo has become a consummate floor leader in the playoffs and Garnett is certainly the team’s vocal inspiration.
Orlando is led by head coach Stan Van Gundy, who has won the Southeast Division each of the three years he’s led the team. Van Gundy’s teams haven’t been eliminated in the first round and he has turned the Magic into championship contenders.
However, the team features young stars like Nelson and 24-year-old 2009 and 2010 Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, and they have struggled with the team chemistry at times this season.
The Magic have plenty of players capable of a big scoring night. Rashard Lewis, Carter, Nelson or Howard could lead the way on any given night but they didn’t have a consistent threat in the regular season.
Eventually, the Magic will need a player to take over a series as Howard did against the Cavs in the conference finals last season.
Then again, other teams like Cleveland, Miami, Oklahoma City, Utah and Denver who rely on one or two main scorers are out of the playoffs already. Boston plays a similar style with lots of scoring options in Garnett, Rondo, Pierce, and Rondo and they’re still in the mix.
Boston has proven leaders and winners, but Orlando may not need a clear-cut commander to finally win an elusive title.
A Few Back Stories
Doc Rivers coached the Magic from 1999 to 2003. Despite three straight playoff appearances and no losing seasons, Rivers was fired 11 games into the 2003-2004 season.
He became an NBA announcer on ABC later that season—another position currently held by a Van Gundy, Stan's brother Jeff.
Although Rivers didn’t get his revenge last season, the Celtics have made some adjustments and they could match up better with the Magic this season.
Boston’s Nate Robinson and Orlando’s Dwight Howard probably won’t be on the court together much, but the two have waged some great battles in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest.
In 2008, Howard pulled out his Superman costume on his way to winning the contest. The next year, Robinson returned from a one-year absence in green Krypto-Nate gear and won his second Slam Dunk title as Superman came in second.
Howard has one win and a runner-up finish in the All-Star game event and Robinson holds the record with three wins and he was the runner-up in 2007.
Wallace is often cited as a technical foul waiting to happen and a bad player to have on a team, but he’s been a mainstay in the NBA’s final four.
Wallace’s teams (Portland, Detroit, and Boston) have made the Eastern or Western Conference finals eight of the last twelve seasons, he’s also been to two NBA Finals and he won a championship with the Detroit Pistons in 2004.
The best player may have been knocked out of the NBA playoffs, but the best teams in the East are front and center for the Eastern Conference Finals.