Previewing the Eastern Conference Finals: Three Keys for the Boston Celtics
If I were to have visited ESPN.com for the first time in my life today, I would have sworn it was the NBA offseason. As hard as it may be to believe, LeBron James is not testing the free agent market yet, and there are more playoff games to be played.
While all the attention has been on James and where he will play next year, the Orlando Magic have become a team of quiet assassins by going 8-0 in an unblemished postseason.
A year after being ousted by this very Magic team on their home court, the Boston Celtics have seemingly rediscovered the swagger that earned them a championship two years ago.
Here are my three keys for the Celtics if they want to have a chance to raise their 18th championship banner:
3) Making Dwight Howard Guard
Orlando has looked just about as flawless as their record this postseason, but the one part of their game that has been exposed by the Bobcats and Hawks has been the over-aggressiveness of Dwight Howard.
Typically, it would not seem logical to look to go at the two-time (and still running) Defensive Player of the Year, but it is just a reality that officiating in the regular season and playoffs is different.
With Howard under the microscope on every call, the Celtics will have a chance to get him into foul trouble and get easy points at the free-throw line.
For this reason, it is important that Kendrick Perkins is active on the offensive glass and that the Celtics give him a couple looks—preferably earlier in the game.
While Perk needs to be able to do some damage himself, the real attack should come from penetration and slashing to the paint via Rajon Rondo, Tony Allen, and Paul Pierce.
Much of the series will depend on these players' ability to get to the painted area and go up strong against Howard.
If they can do this, look for a lot of free throws for Boston and a lot of minutes for Marcin Gortat—both pretty sights if you are a Celtics fan.
2) Defensive Rebounding
Since 2008, the Celtics' defensive rebounding has gradually been getting worse, with most of it being attributed to plain laziness, which has been led by the tandem of Wallace and Davis (more on them later).
For the most part, the Celtics were beaten on the glass in the Cleveland series—a series that they dominated in almost all aspects. It is imperative that this does not happen against Orlando for a couple of reasons.
For one, it is never easy to win when you are being beaten on the boards. More rebounds means more chances, which means more points in theory. But more importantly, Orlando is the type of team that feeds off offensive rebounds.
The most dangerous option off of an offensive rebound is the kick-out for a three. Between Nelson, Carter, Lewis, Pietrus, Barnes, etc., the Magic will absolutely murder Boston from deep if they are given open looks.
Expect the Magic to take a lot of three's, whether they are open looks or not, which should lead to a lot of long rebounds. This makes the rebounding of the Celtics' perimeter players even more crucial—a fact that should sit well with Boston fans, as their guards have done a better job rebounding the basketball thus far than the big men.
Speaking of the big men...
1) Rasheed Wallace and Glenn Davis
The third and fourth options for the Celtics in the paint—Wallace and Davis—are both potential matchup nightmares for Orlando, which is why they are the X-factors in the series.
Let's start with Wallace. The 35-year-old has shown flashes of being the player the Celtics envisioned when they signed him in the offseason, but his total body of work this season has been less than impressive.
After struggling for most of the Cleveland series, Wallace played a very productive 10 minutes or so toward the end of Game Six. He will look to carry this momentum into the conference finals, where he will be met by Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis on the Orlando front line.
While the Magic and Celtics are matched up incredibly well on paper, the one difference between the two teams is the flexibility in the frontcourt. Orlando will be playing a 4/5 combination of predominantly Lewis and then either Howard or Gortat at center at all times.
If the Celtics are able to play both Wallace and Garnett on the floor at the same time, it means that either Howard or Gortat will be forced to play out of their comfort zone on the perimeter to respect the outside shooting ability of both 'Sheed and KG.
Boston would love to be able to play the two at the same time for extended minutes, but it all depends on the play of the erratic Wallace.
If he continues to play lazy defense, not grab rebounds, brick threes, and get technical fouls—as he did in the Cleveland series—the Celtics lose a potential game-changer.
The other big man coming off the bench who could swing the outcome of this series is Glenn Davis. As you may recall, Davis was in the starting lineup when these two teams met in the postseason last year when Kevin Garnett was out with a knee injury.
In a big role, Davis stepped up and played a very good series—including a game-winning 18-foot jump shot in Orlando.
Davis has proven that he can score on Rashard Lewis when he bodies up on the lankier power forward. For this reason, he could really star in a lesser role for the Celtics coming off the bench to provide instant offense.
If he was able to play so well for 40+ minutes a game over a seven-game series, the Celtics are hoping Davis will be able to be the best bench player in this series by being energetic and efficient.
While there may not be a pair of big men that are lazier or with a lower basketball IQ at times, the combination of Wallace and Davis provide a unique look from the frontcourt that Orlando may not be able to defend.
The key is that they do the little things, including rebounding and solid defense, so Doc Rivers will be able to play them more minutes.
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