First it was Dwyane Wade. Then it was LeBron James. Through two rounds of the playoffs the Celtics have won series against two of the premier players in the NBA, belying the conventional wisdom that the team with the best player usually wins a series.
Now the Celtics will face an even tougher test because not only do the Orlando Magic have a star player in Dwight Howard, they also have the best team. The Cavaliers may have finished with the better overall record, but the Magic finished the regular season winning 20 of their finals 23 games and have barely been touched in the playoffs, sweeping both the Bobcats and Hawks.
If the Celtics can advance and return to the NBA Finals they will have to go through three of the five players on the All-NBA First Team (Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant are the others). Not a single Celtic made so much as the Third Team, but then that was the regular season.
The Magic took three of four from the Celtics this season, including both games in Boston, but the average score in those four games was 88-87 in the Magic’s favor. The most disheartening loss came in Orlando when the Celtics were outscored 35-22 in the fourth quarter and lost in the final seconds when Rashard Lewis drove right past Kevin Garnett for the winning points.
Of all the series that could have been played, this one is the most intriguing from a matchup perspective. Few players, if any, guard Howard as well as Kendrick Perkins. Lewis and Garnett is a hoop connoisseur’s delight and what Celtics fan didn’t believe that if Garnett was healthy last season they would have won their series?
Ray Allen and Vince Carter are both perennial All-Stars at the 2-guard position, while Rajon Rondo and Jameer Nelson have taken turns representing the East the last two seasons.
This series has everything except for a pending free agency melodrama, which is frankly refreshing. The focus will be solely on the court and it has seven games written all over it.
With that, let’s take a closer look at the matchups before Game 1 tips Sunday afternoon:
DEFENDING THE MAGIC
No team takes more 3-pointers than Orlando and no team has as many threats from behind the arc. The Magic took more than 800 more 3’s this season than their opponents and the only two players in their rotation who don’t take them are Howard and Marcin Gortat.
Lewis is their best perimeter threat and he killed the Celtics in their playoff series last season. He did it again during the regular season.
Beyond Lewis, Carter, Lewis, J.J. Redick, Ryan Anderson and interchangeable small forwards Matt Barnes and Mikael Pietrus will all launch from 3-point range whenever they have the chance.
The Magic’s offense relies in great part on opponents double-teaming Howard in the post, but Perkins helps nullify that strategy. Howard shot just 47 percent against the Celtics this season and averaged just 12.3 points. That’s a far cry from his averages of 59 percent and 18.3 points.
Howard gets most of his offense inside. He shoots 75 percent at the rim, and that percentage drops to 44 percent from 10 feet and in and down to 38 percent from 15 feet. Perkins has been able to use his strength and positioning to force Howard into hook shots as opposed to dunks, which are obviously unstoppable.
Howard has been a monster in the playoffs, shooting a ridiculous 27-for-32 against Atlanta in the second round. Perkins, of course, has to stay out of foul trouble and here’s where Rasheed Wallace comes into play.
Wallace has done a solid job defending Howard in his own right. Where Perkins relies on brawn, Wallace is the crafty old veteran pulling out the chair and poking the ball away when Howard turns his head.
Howard’s obvious weakness is at the line where he shoots just 59 percent, so the Celtics will foul him, they just have to be smart about how they use their fouls.
Orlando is not a one-trick pony and in Nelson they have a smart, creative point guard with a deadly stroke. Like Garnett, Nelson was injured during the playoffs last season and his matchup with Rondo will be pivotal.
The giant blinking X-factor for the Magic is Carter, who had a down shooting year, but is still capable of breathtaking moves and shotmaking in the halfcourt. Carter put up and insane 29 shots in the first meeting this season, and while he only made 10 of them, he got hot at just the right time.
If the Magic have a noticeable weakness it’s turnovers. While not as pronounced as the Celtics issues, they ranked a shade below league average in Turnover Rate (which adjusts the raw number with pace).
ATTACKING THE MAGIC
Howard is the best defensive player in the NBA, by far. He not only blocks shots and controls the paint, he is also the best rebounder in the league. Whenever Rondo penetrates, you can bet that Howard will be waiting for him.
The Celtics would do well to try to get him in foul trouble by posting up Perkins early and seeing what he can do. But the real key for the Celtics will be getting out in transition before Howard and the Magic defense have a chance to set up and that means starting their offense with defensive rebounding.
The Celtics have sped up their pace considerably in the postseason and are averaging around 92 possessions per game. The Magic want to play slower, at around 85 per game. Whoever controls the tempo will have an advantage.
As we have seen throughout the playoffs, the Celtics are at their best when at least three of their top scorers are having good nights. It doesn’t matter which ones, and that makes them tough to defend.
There are no obvious mismatches as in the Cleveland series, but on paper Pierce should have an advantage over Barnes and Pietrus. Still, they are both active and long defenders and shouldn’t get tired as they split the minutes at small forward.
Once again the burden will be on Rondo to create in the halfcourt with his dribble penetration. He had a miserable time against Orlando in the playoffs last season and they had great success in backing off him and making him a stationary jump shooter.
That test will never stop for Rondo and he has gotten progressively better at coming up with ways to counter those defenses.
Here, the Magic may have an advantage at least in terms of depth. They go two-deep at every position and unlike the Cavs, Stan Van Gundy doesn’t need to tinker much with his lineups because the skillsets of his reserves are very similar to his starters.
Van Gundy does have one ace in the hole, which is utilizing a Twin Towers look with Howard and Gortat. This has proven successful against the Celtics in limited doses.
The Celtics rotation is now set with Tony Allen playing the role of sixth man and Wallace and Glen Davis providing support up front. The Celtics bench was a huge weakness in the playoffs last season as Doc Rivers was basically down to Eddie House, Brian Scalabrine and whole lot of hope.
Allen will be a huge factor in this series because he can provide relief if Carter gets hot and he will also backup Rondo, Ray Allen and Pierce. Pietrus has been a game-changer with his 3-point shooting and defense and Tony Allen will also have to keep him in check.
NUMBERS TO WATCH
Rebounding: The Celtics have morphed back into a dominating defensive rebounding team in the playoffs after a noticeable slip during the regular season. They have to get multiple stops, rebounds and then run.
Turnovers: It was their Achilles Heel during the regular season and the Magic exploited it to great effect when they played each other this season. The Celtics have tightened up during the playoffs, but it can still be a major problem at times. Anything more than 16 would be an issue.
Pace: The Celtics should want a minimum of 90 possessions per game, while Orlando wants it in the mid 80s.
Free throws: The Magic also get to the line frequently, mostly because of Howard. But they have trouble converting, again mostly because of Howard. It’s not the number of attempts, it’s the number of makes that will be important.
3-point shooting: The Magic are going to take, and make, a ton of 3’s. Long shots also lead to long rebounds and the Celtics simply outworked the Cavs in that regard. That trend has to continue. The Celtics have the firepower to keep up with Orlando, but that could be a fool’s game. Their offense is best when it doesn’t rely on any one thing and trying to get into a shootout with Orlando could prove disastrous.
You would have had a hard time making a logical argument that the Celtics could win a series against the Magic when the playoffs started, but then you would have had a hard time making an argument that they would have even advanced this far.
The Celtics are simply playing on an entirely different level than they have at any point during the season, even accounting for their 23-5 start.
This has all the makings of a seven-game series and normally you would take the team with the homecourt advantage. But again, this Celtics team is anything but normal, especially on the road where they seem to relish going into another team’s building and coming out with a win.
Game 1 could be pivotal because the Celtics enter the series playoff-tested and in rhythm while the Magic haven’t played in a week and barely broke a sweat in dispatching the Hawks.
If the Celtics are going to pull this off, Rondo has to be great, Pierce and Allen have to be consistent, Perkins has to stay on the floor and Garnett has to lock down Lewis. It’s a tall order, but the feeling here is that they can, and will. Celtics in seven.