Having survived an epic first-round series with the Bulls, the Celtics now face an Orlando team that’s much different in terms of style, temperament and expectations than Chicago. If the Bulls were playing as if there was nothing to lose and everything to gain, the Magic will have tremendous pressure to break through and advance to the conference finals against the wounded Celtics.
Orlando didn’t exactly distinguish itself in its first round series win against Philadelphia. After losing the first game and trailing 2-1, the Magic were able to rally and ultimately close out the series -- without Dwight Howard who was suspended for Game 6. But not before carelessly blowing leads in several games and exhibiting the sorts of tendencies that test coach Stan Van Gundy’s patience.
More than anything, this series will present a contrast in matchups, for while the Celtics will have to come up with an approach to guarding Howard, Orlando’s makeshift backcourt will have to deal with Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen.
If the Celtics felt the loss of Kevin Garnett’s pick and roll defense against Derrick Rose and the Bulls they will really feel KG’s absence against long-range gunner Rashard Lewis. Not surprisingly, the Celtics won both matchups with Orlando when they had Garnett at full strength and lost both when they were without Garnett and had him for limited minutes at the end of his comeback attempt.
“We didn’t win either game without Kevin,” Doc Rivers said. “And so we’re going to have to go and find out why. We have homecourt. Other than that, they’re very, very tough.”
Rajon Rondo vs. Rafer Alston: When the Magic lost Jameer Nelson, they lost more than an All-Star point guard. They also lost their on-court leader. Alston, the erstwhile “Skip to My Lou,” was acquired from Houston in a deadline deal and helped stabilize a point guard situation that was held down by veteran Anthony Johnson. But Rafer is no Jameer.
While an underrated defender, Alston is not the scoring threat that Nelson is. Rondo captured the public’s imagination with his play against the Bulls, but he had some struggles at the end of the series. The Celtics will need him to be at his best in this series.
Ray Allen vs. Courtney Lee/JJ Redick: Lee suffered a fractured sinus cavity in the Sixers series when he caught a wayward elbow from Howard and he is not expected to play the first two games in Boston. Van Gundy went so far as to say that if Lee played at all, it would be a “bonus.” That’s a tough loss for the Magic, because Lee took over the starting 2-guard position and had a strong under-the-radar rookie season, posting decent shooting numbers and playing solid defense. Redick is still what he was at Duke -- a good long-range shooter and not much else.
Allen was phenomenal against the Bulls after Game 1 and he should own this matchup. The backcourt is where the Celtics have the biggest advantage.
Hedo Turkoglu vs. Paul Pierce: Turkoglu is something of an enigma; skilled and talented, but also prone to doing odd things at odd times. Witness his end of game performances against Philly. In Game 3, he forced a deep 3-pointer that missed and drew Van Gundy’s ire, and in Game 4 he schooled Thaddeus Young to drain the game-winner.
Turkoglu has bothered Pierce at times in the past with his reach, but Pierce is clearly the better all-around player. The great unknown is how much gas does the captain have left in his tank? He looked sharper in Game 7 against the Bulls than he had at other times in the series and the Celtics need that player on the floor.
“It’s similar to last year,” Pierce said when asked about the quick turnaround. “We never got a break in the playoff series last year. For me, I’d rather keep playing anyway. I think you get three, four days off you kind of lose it a little bit. Hey, just like the regular season, you play every other (day), let’s keep it going.”
Rashard Lewis vs. Big Baby Davis: Lewis is technically a “four” because he’s 6-foot-10 and because he and Turkolgu are the Magic’s best forwards so one of them has to be. He’s not much of a presence inside, but he is a great 3-point shooter and the task of trailing him around the perimeter will fall to Big Baby. “They’re a tough matchup at the four,” Rivers said. “That’s the toughest matchup for us.” Depending on how things go with Howard, we could see a lot of Brian Scalabrine in this series.
Baby presents his own challenges to Orlando because he is such a unique player, but if you’re looking for an X-factor kind of matchup, this one is it.
Dwight Howard vs. Kendrick Perkins: Here’s the series in a nutshell: Can Perkins stay on the court? If he can avoid foul trouble, he’s shown that he can go toe-to-toe with Howard. Beyond Perkins things get dicey. Big Baby could see time against Howard, and so could Mikki Moore. And then? Considering Greg Kite, Mark Acres and Joe Kleine are unavailable…
Howard averaged over 20 points and 13 rebounds a game. He is by far the best center in the East and probably the best in the league, but there have been questions about his toughness and whether he has the right “killer mentality” to be as great as he can be, to which he can merely say, “20 and 13.”
But Howard does have a serious weakness and that’s at the foul line, where he’s just a 59 percent shooter. That’s a big reason why the Magic tend to go away from him late in games and why they let so many leads slips away. This is a big test for Howard to take the proverbial next step in his career.
Perkins, meanwhile, is making his own name with his post-season play and if he can chop Superman down to size it would add his burgeoning rep. “That’s the NBA,” Perkins said. “That’s what I got to go do. I got to go up against him, but he’s got to go up against me. I don’t look at it like that. I look at it as like we’re going up against the Orlando Magic.”
True enough, but this is the matchup everyone is zeroed in on.
Like the Celtics, the Magic are not particularly deep. Veteran Anthony Johnson is a dependable backup and Mickael Pietrus is Orlando’s best all-around reserve. Where Orlando has an edge is with backup big men Tony Battie and Marcin Gortat. Unlike the Bulls who went small, smaller, smallest, Van Gundy has pulled out a mega-sized lineup at times with Battie playing with Howard or Gortat.
The key for the Celtics bench will be taking what they did in Game 7 and carrying it over to this series. Stephon Marbury has a huge edge in quickness against Johnson and he will need to stay aggressive. Scalabrine could be a very important player as well, particularly if Perkins and/or Davis find themselves in foul trouble.
Van Gundy and Rivers are two of the better coaches in the league. Both dealt with injuries to significant players and both are known for being well-prepared, no-nonsense leaders who stress defense. But where the Celtics players and Rivers have carved out a strong relationship, Magic players have hinted that Van Gundy’s penchant for calling them out in the press and airing them out on the sidelines is not their favorite approach. That has the potential to become a distraction.
3 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT ORLANDO
1. Unlike Chicago, the Magic are not a particularly good offensive rebounding team. Outside of Howard (and Battie and Gortat in small doses), Orlando doesn’t have too many players who attack the glass. They are very good defensively, partly because they don’t crash and get back on defense in transition.
2. Orlando shot 850 more 3-pointers than their opponents in 2008-09, and made 373 more. That’s a huge disparity. Just about everyone shoots 3’s outside of Howard. Lewis and Lee are their best shooters, while Turkoglu is prone to falling in love with the line. It’s a make-miss league as Rivers likes to say, and while the Magic shot more 3’s than anyone outside the Knicks, the Celtics shot a higher percentage. Defending the 3-point attack will be key for both teams.
3. As good as Orlando is at shooting from the outside, they were the worst free throw shooting team in the NBA. Most of that has to do with Howard, who shot more than twice as many free throws as everyone else, but Alston (71 percent), Pietrus (71 percent), Battie (66 percent) and Gortat (58 percent) are also suspect from the line in varying degrees.
For most of the year, Orlando was mentioned as the fourth team behind Cleveland, Boston and Los Angeles as legitimate title contenders. While most fans and observers have taken a wait and see attitude regarding the Magic, Rivers has been talking them up since December. This is Orlando’s big chance to advance in the pecking order and if they can’t beat the Celtics without Kevin Garnett, the Magic know they will be in for a long summer.
You can make the argument that the Celtics are playing with house money at this point, having gotten through the Bulls and reinforcing their championship-tough credentials. No one in the Boston locker room would agree with that assessment mind you, but the pressure is on Orlando, not the Celtics.
That, plus the huge edge in the backcourt and homecourt gives the Celtics the edge in another seven-game series, although without all the overtimes. Celtics in seven.