NBA Playoffs: A Definitive Magic-Celtics Breakdown
There has been a subtle rivalry brewing between the Celtics and Magic, something that should come to a head during this battle for the Eastern Conference title. Orlando drew first blood by eliminating Boston from last season's playoffs and look to repeat that success.
Orlando has been unstoppable, burning through the first two rounds of the playoffs by sweeping the Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks. The interesting thing is that the Magic have done so without Dwight Howard playing his best basketball.
Boston took a decidedly different route to the matchup, defeating the Miami Heat in five games and disappointing LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in six. Though the Celtics didn't sweep their team, they played dominant ball and looked sharper than they had all season.
Who will prevail, the red-hot Celtics or the well rested Magic? For a better idea, join me as I breakdown the series.
Orlando - 3 Boston - 1
This may be an inaccurate comparison simply because the Boston Celtics barely resemble the team that we saw in the regular season. That said, there are a few trends that must be pointed out.
In three of the four games, Vince Carter led the Magic in scoring, once deferring to Rashard Lewis to provide points. While Dwight Howard's defensive numbers held up well against the Celtics, his scoring output was down considerably, from 18.3 to 12.3 points a game.
It looks like the Celtics focused their attention on shutting down Dwight Howard and let it be a battle of the wings. But with the depth of Orlando, this may not be the best idea for Boston.
For Boston, there have been two big surprises thus far in the playoffs. First, Kevin Garnett looks to be shaping back into the outstanding player that led the Celtics to a title in 2008. Doctors told KG that last year's knee injury would take a entire year to fully heal, that looks to have been an accurate estimation.
In this season's playoffs, Garnett has averaged 17.6 points and 8.3 rebounds a night. Garnett is, once again, a dangerous force that can sway a game with his skill and intensity.
Second, Rajon Rondo is making people forget about "the Big Three" of Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. Rondo has put the team on his back on more than one occasion in these playoffs, notably his 29/13/18 line to obliterate the Cavs in Game 4 to tie the series.
As for Orlando, it's hard to pinpoint a particular player that is hot so far. With such a plethora of talent, the Magic send numerous different looks at teams, which most prove to be effective.
With Orlando playing so well, there is not a true weak link on the team. Matt Barnes has not provided as much of a spark as he had in the regular season, making little impact against Atlanta. Barnes missed practice on Saturday with back spasms but should be alright against Boston.
Ray Allen disappeared at times in the Cleveland series and is showing signs of wearing down. Allen only shot .308 from three point range against Cleveland, including an 0-5 performance in Game 6.
Rajon Rondo has a definite advantage in this matchup, due in part to his length and speed. Rondo will smother Jameer Nelson when the ball is in the Orlando point guard's hands and forcing him into making mistakes.
When Rondo has the ball, expect him to use his speed to get around the undersized Nelson. Rondo should be able to do what he wants, when he wants, on offense unless Orlando counters with defensive rotations.
Jason Williams has been surprisingly effective in replacing Nelson, whether off the bench or during in relief while Jameer was banged up. For his age, J-Will brings a spark of energy that rubs off on the players around him and can contribute if Nelson gets in a funk.
Nate Robinson was brought to the Celtics to provide a spark off the bench. He has yet to make a major impact for Boston, but he will be itching to provide a Krypto-Nate dunk over Superman Dwight Howard.
This should be a highly contested matchup on the perimeter for both teams. Orlando has had varied success with Vince Carter, Matt Barnes and Rashard Lewis floating around the outside and scoring for the Magic.
Boston has seen their middle attack tapper off some due to aging. With Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Rasheed Wallace all having seen better days, the emphasis for Boston should continue to focus on the front and backcourt.
Because of the unconventional power forward play of Rashard Lewis and Rasheed Wallace, they won't factor in much for this discussion. Obviously, the spotlight is on Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett.
Howard has been off and on lately, at times struggling with foul trouble or simply not being called on to carry Orlando. Dwight will have to play better against the Celtics, though Boston has had a knack for phasing him out of the big picture game.
Garnett is playing outstanding ball, but has not been tested by someone at Howard's skill level. It is not too hard to play impressive ball against Michael Beasley, Jermaine O'Neal, Antawn Jamison, and old, fat Shaquille O'Neal.
Beyond those two, Orlando needs Marcin Gortat to play to the level that warranted his contract last summer. Ryan Anderson should get some minutes, but will play more of a Lewis type of game. Brandon Bass is itching to get some minutes and has shown that he can come up big if called upon.
Kendrick Perkins plays solid ball for Boston and has had mild success defending Dwight Howard in the past. Glen "Big Baby" Davis has been somewhat quiet in the playoffs, but don't expect that to continue in this series.
Key for Orlando
Orlando cruised through the first two rounds with little resistance. The Celtics pose a much bigger obstacle for the Magic.
The key to an Orlando series victory will be physicality and toughness. The Celtics are aging and likely will have trouble keeping up with this quick Orlando squad, but when the game slows down, the Magic will have to knuckle up.
Dwight Howard must not worry about the refs and play tough in the paint. He can use his size and strength to bully the Boston frontcourt. When the playoffs reach this stage, referees tend to swallow their whistles and let the players play.
Keys for Boston
Boston must keep Howard quiet up front and take advantage of the mismatch at the point to have any chance in this series. However, the key to winning this series may come down to the perimeter play of Ray Allen.
Boston will not survive with Allen missing threes the way he did in their previous series. For the Celtics to advance to the NBA Finals, Ray Allen will need to knock down those big shots to sway the game in clutch moments.
The Enigma Factor
Two players may make a decidedly negative impact on their respective teams, Rasheed Wallace and Vince Carter. Both enigmatic players joined their teams this season and have been up and down, in and out, over and under.
Vince Carter will be the biggest factor because the Magic rely on him more. Carter has been better than expected for Orlando and has shown up big against Boston. Barring a phantom injury, Carter should hold his own in this series.
Wallace, on the other hand, has been worse than most expected since joining the Celtics. Playing grossly out of shape and playing lazy ball, 'Sheed has proven to be a distraction at times. When Wallace does show up, it usually doesn't last for an entire game, let alone four to seven.
For the record, I was 6-4 in my predictions for the Magic-Hawks series. The thing that shocked me most was Atlanta's inability to take even one game against Orlando. Here are ten for the Magic-Celtics.
1.) Dwight Howard will toughen up and make a splash with a 20-20 game to send a message to Boston and the entire league.
2.) Vince Carter does get that "injury' that sends fans into a frenzy and causes great media speculation, only to be forgotten by the following game.
3.) Rajon Rondo continues to lead the team as the commentators continually make reference to "the Big Three".
4.) Rashard Lewis outscores Ray Allen for the series and still goes relatively unnoticed.
5.) Rasheed Wallace is ejected from at least one game and is fined by the league at least once for saying things that don't motivate the Celtics the same way they didn't for the Detroit Pistons.
6.) Paul Pierce has one spectacular game, but is unable to replicate the performance for the rest of the series.
7.) Via Twitter, ESPN's Bill Simmons coaxes the Boston home crowd to chant ignorant barbs at Dwight Howard, only to have him smile and shrug them off.
8.) Kevin Garnett get's super pumped up anytime he a.) makes a shot and gets fouled, b.) manages to elevate enough to dunk, and c.) manages to elevate enough to block a shot.
9.) JJ Redick come up big off the bench to go over 20 points at least once, causing everyone to discuss his plans for next season for five minutes before realizing that that is too much time to speculate about JJ Redick's future.
10.) Orlando in 7.