Magic/Celtics Series Preview
Minus LeBron, the ECF still has its share of stars.
by Nada Taha Moslehy
Last year, the series started with a smack upside the head. It continued with a “Big” push to a kid in the crowd after a buzzer-beating, game-winning jumper. It ended with a massive Beatdown in Beantown.
The Orlando Magic, who’ve played their best basketball as of late with 14 straight wins, are finally meeting a challenge in this year’s postseason by facing the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. But these two teams don’t have to dig deep in their memories to recall the last time they met in the Playoffs.
They can just look to last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals where a close series, but not-so-close games, were highlighted by Magic blowouts and Celtics comebacks. There were big games from the expected: Hedo Turkoglu (24 points; Game 3) and the unexpected: Eddie House (31 points; Game 2). There were heartbreaking losses and questioned coaches.
After a back and forth battle between the Eastern powerhouses, Orlando managed to make it through after a surprising 101-82 Game 7.
Take out a pizza-loving Turkoglu, throw in an inconsistent Rasheed Wallace, switch out a smack-happy Rafer Alston with a dominating Jameer Nelson and bring back a trash talking, but healthy Kevin Garnett and these two different teams make your memories of the 2009 series quickly fade away.
Focusing on the present, the Magic are coming off of six days of rest after a historic performance in the Playoffs thus far. They swept the Charlotte Bobcats in Round 1, and wiped out the Atlanta Hawks in Round 2.
Their dominating performance was highlighted by NBA bests:
*PPG differential: Orlando defeated the Hawks by an average of 25.3 points per game – the greatest differential in a four-game sweep in NBA history.
*84.4: Dwight Howard’s field goal percentage. He made 27 of his 32 shots versus Atlanta – the highest in an NBA Playoff series.
*Beyond the arc: Orlando’s 45 three-pointers against the Bobcats and their 44 against the Hawks are the highest made in a single Playoff series in NBA history.
The scariest part of that list? That it is not the entire list! We could continue with it, but we’ll spare you.
Although their “easy” wins over teams that at the beginning of the Playoffs were considered possible sleepers but are now looking for a new coach and retooling their roster, were hidden in the headlines, now the Magic are seeing the respect they’ve been searching for since last year.
But they’re not going to be facing a “sleeper” team in the ECF – they’re facing the veteran Boston Celtics who are coming off a huge series with the Cavs, ending it with a three-game winning streak against the Ringless King and his team of Playoff peasants.
Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy isn’t letting his team’s successes thus far cause them to overlook the Celtics’ potency.
“They don’t surprise me because they have three guys going into the Hall of Fame,’’ he said, referring to the Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. “And they have an all-star in (Rajon) Rondo. They’ve had health problems most of the season. Pierce and Garnett had health problems, but they’re healthy now. They’re playing great. They’re a championship team that has won 60 games two of the past three years.’’
But it’s not enough to just base the matchup on the season series that Orlando won 3-1. Although Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis had strong games during the regular season (averaging 19.8 and 18 points, respectively), Howard struggled against Kendrick Perkins, Wallace and Garnett.
The most crucial stat from the regular season series? Howard averaged 4.3 fouls against the Celts.
Considering how the Magic’s role players and other starters stepped up during Howard’s rough first round series against the Bobcats, it’s not so far fetched to think they can do the same against the Celtics – although it would obviously be more difficult against the likes of Rondo, Garnett and Ray Allen.
PG: Jameer Nelson Vs. Rajon Rondo: Both point guards are leading their teams in the postseason this year. ‘Meer is averaging a team-high 20.5 ppg and has only committed 11 turnovers in 267 minutes of playoff time. His self-confidence and the confidence of his teammates in him is an extra boost considering he was watching from the sidelines last year. Rondo, who may be weak from 3-point range, is excelling in every other aspect of the game – proven by his Game 4 triple double that will rank as one of the Celtic’s greatest playoff performance in history.
ADVANTAGE: Rondo – but not by much. Rondo’s penetration and good vision will hurt Orlando’s defense, but Jameer’s postseason performance has made it a smaller edge than you’d think.
SG: Vince Carter vs. Ray Allen: Shooting 91.3 percent from the line and 42.5 percent from beyond the arc, Ray Allen is still a deadly shooter with veteran experience (88 career playoff games). But his experience has taken a toll on his 34-year-old body. While Vince isn’t that much younger, he does create his own shot better than Allen, which helped the Magic against Atlanta.
ADVANTAGE: Vince. He can spot-up like Allen, but he can also create his own shot and take over a game.
SF: Matt Barnes vs. Paul Pierce: It may not even be a Barnes-Pierce matchup from the go. According to Barnes, Van Gundy wants him guarding Ray Allen to start the series, which may not make much sense because Pierce is a more dangerous and versatile offensive player. It could just be to help keep Carter from getting tired running around Allen. Barnes is the Magic’s grittiest player – he even has his own “Matt Barnes Will Kill You” shirt. Pierce was Boston’s leading scorer during the regular season but has struggled shooting the ball in the playoffs (39.6 percent from the floor including a weak 35.8 percent from beyond the arc).
ADVANTAGE: Pierce. Barnes may be a tough defender, but Pierce can defend and shoot, and he’s also the emotional core of the Celtics.
PF: Rashard Lewis vs. Kevin Garnett: Finishing off the Cavs in Round 2, Garnett looked like he drank from the fountain of youth and shed years off his aging body. He has a fierce mid-range jumper and is obviously a strong interior defender. Oh and he instigates off the court as much as he does on. Lewis is cold-blooded from behind the three-point line with his shooting accuracy – making 46.2 percent of his treys in the postseason. He stretches the defense of the other team while expanding the offense of the Magic.
ADVANTAGE: Garnett. He was out last year with a knee injury, and it still took the Magic 7 games to close out the Celts. He’s the key to the series, and potentially, their Finals run.
C: Dwight Howard vs. Kendrick Perkins:
Howard is the best center in the NBA and he’s playing like it. He dominated the Hawks after coming off a low-scoring series with the Bobcats where he barely saw the floor because of foul trouble. Perkins annoys Howard and had the second-best field goal percentage (60.2) this season. With the amount of bigs Boston can throw at Howard, he may struggle to stay out of foul trouble.
ADVANTAGE: Howard. And that’s without a doubt. The only question is will he see the floor like he did during the Hawks series or will he see the bench like he did during the Bobcats series?
BENCH: Orlando’s bench is the deepest in the league. Mickael Pietrus, Ryan Anderson, J.J. Redick and Marcin Gortat can all ball at high levels. On the other end of the court, Tony Allen came up big during the Celtics Christmas Day win against the Magic with 16 points. As for Rasheed Wallace? Depending on if he brings his legs or not, he could have a major impact. Based on the hunger he showed against Cleveland, someone hasn’t been feeding Big Baby. If he comes out like that against the Magic, he could play a major role. Of course, with Howard in the middle O-boards won’t come as easily.
PREDICTION: Magic in 6.