Previewing the Eastern Conference Finals

The Eastern Conference Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Orlando Magic are set to kick off Sunday at 3:30pm. So, without further ado, let's discuss.

As was the case when the Celtics were set to play the Miami Heat, along with the Cleveland Cavaliers, I'll start by identifying the Magic's best player: Dwight Howard. His credentials, from this year alone: All-Star, Defensive Player of the Year, All-NBA First Team, First Team All-Defense. 

However, I'm sure Kendrick Perkins appreciates the challenge. Perk exploited Howard's lack of offense in the playoffs last season, but from everything I've read, it certainly sounds like Howard's developed that portion of his game over the course of this past season. One of the obvious keys for Perk is to stay out of early foul trouble, as he and Rasheed Wallace are the Celtics' best options when it comes to guarding Orlando's center, so the more they're on the floor, the better. And unless Howard starts going all Kareem Abdual-Jabbar on the Celtics, I'm not anticipating too many double teams on him down low. And speaking of foul trouble, it wouldn't shock me to see the Celtics pump it down low to Perk early in the game just to see if they can draw an early call or two on Howard and force him to the bench.

Wallace's play, for the most part, has gotten better as the postseason has gone along, so we can only hope he shows up in Game 1 and maintains a consistent level of acceptable play throughout the series. Howard's undoubtedly stronger than Wallace, and is clearly a much better athlete, but when these two teams met in the regular season, one of the things Wallace became very adept at doing was poking the entry pass away from Howard and forcing a turnover. Howard would be posting up on the block with Rasheed on his back, and as the entry pass came at him, Rasheed would basically lurch around and over Howard and poke the ball away, and the Celtics more often than not retained possession. Not letting Howard get the ball is actually a pretty effective way to defend him. Who knew? And quite frankly, not allowing Howard the ball easily is one of Rasheed's best options, as he might not be physical enough to fully contain him once Howard starts his move. 

In terms of relating the Magic to the Heat and the Cavaliers, however, the comparisons pretty much end there. Both Miami and Cleveland were an All-NBA First Teamer surrounded by a bunch of less than adequate role players. The Magic, on the other hand, are a legitimate team, as they have worthy talent at practically every position, and boast a deep and effective bench on top of that. 

So while we might begin the discussion talking about Howard, we have to spend nearly as much time talking about Orlando's point guard, Jameer Nelson, its shooting guard, Vince Carter, and its versatile, 6-10 power forward,Rashard Lewis

The Rajon Rondo/Jameer Nelson matchup is going to be one of the most exciting this series has to offer. Both All-Stars, Rondo still maintains a quickness advantage over Nelson, but Jameer is a much more accomplished offensive player than both Carlos Arroyo and Mo Williams. He's more accomplished than Williams in the sense that he doesn't fizzle out once the big bright lights of the playoffs begin to shine down upon him. On the contrary, Nelson, who's finally healthy, has been a key force behind Orlando's offensive success throughout this postseason. He averaged just under 24 points per game against the Charlotte Bobcats in the first round, and put in 17.3 points and 6.0 assists per game against the Hawks in the Semi-Finals. 

It's interesting because Rondo has yet to meet a point guard who is as involved in his team's offense as Nelson, and Nelson hasn't seen a point guard as capable defensively as Rondo. Rondo will still get by Nelson as he works his way to the rim, but unlike Cleveland, Orlando boasts arguably the NBA's best help defender in Howard, who has an annoying tendency to rotate over from the weak side and block opponents' shots as they meander towards his jurisdiction. Regardless, Rondo needs to continue to penetrate, but I'm wondering if he might be more successful pulling up earlier in the paint for a short jumper or extended floater, or simply going right at Howard's body, absorbing the contact and trying to draw the foul, as opposed to getting into the paint and trying to put in layups and floaters right around the rim. It's difficult imagining Howard not eating those for lunch. 

Kevin Garnett torched the Cavaliers, and besides Rondo, was easily the Celtics' most consistent player throughout the Semi-Finals, particularly on the offensive end. He finally looks healthy, which might not bode well for Rashard Lewis. I really question Lewis's ability to guard KG in the post, especially if KG's going to resort to the turning fadeaway he abused Antawn Jamison with. But, much like Rondo, Garnett will have to be wary of Howard's help defense if he has plans to spin towards the middle and resort to those short jump hooks of his.

And while I question Lewis's ability to guard KG down low, I suppose it's only fair to be equally speculative about whether or not Garnett's capable of handling Lewis out along the perimeter. Lewis might be 6'10, but he's shooting 46.2 percent from three-point nation through the first two rounds of the playoffs. And as for whether or not Lewis will be able to drive by Garnett towards the rim, I'm sure we all remember the January 28th game between these two clubs when Lewis torched Garnett on the baseline to hit the game-winning layup with just over a second left. We'd like to think that was the "old" KG, and that his recent resurrection will not allow such easy baskets for Lewis.

One other thing worth mentioning with these two is when Lewis chooses to keep to the perimeter, he takes Garnett out of the paint, which cuts out one of the Celtics' best help defenders. Keep an eye on that. 

Strictly based on position most often played and what we saw during the regular season, you might figure that Vince Carter would chase Ray Allen around, while Matt Barnes checks Paul Pierce. It was revealed today, however, (hat tip to Celtics Hub) that the opposite would take place. Barnes said he would be the one fighting through the screens for Ray, while Carter will try and deal with Pierce. 

This doesn't completely surprise me, given the fact that Carter's energy is better spent on offense, and because Barnes is much more likely, being the gritty defender he is, to fight through the hundreds of screens, as opposed to lazily bouncing off of them. Barnes has never struck me as a great one-on-one defender along the lines of someone like Ron Artest, in the sense that he'll strip the ball from you and block your shot. However, I used the word "gritty" a moment ago, because he does play physical and will body his man up, get under him, and basically be an annoying pest. However, whether it's Ray or Paul dealing with him, both need worry more about keeping their heads about them and not conceding to his antics. He can be a hot head, but both Pierce and Allen are better on offense than Barnes is on defense. If they stay patient, they'll do fine. 

Pierce on Carter favors the Celtics, in my eyes. We all know Pierce struggled mightily at times against Cleveland, but we all also know that Carter isn't exactly known for his defensive prowess. Carter will feel like a breath of fresh air to Pierce compared to LeBron James's 6'8 towering frame, and I expect Pierce's scoring average to jump back up somewhere in the 19-22 points per game area. As for Carter's production on the offensive end, Ben Q Rock over at Orlando Pinstriped Post wrote about his offensive efficiency increasing as the regular season went on, and how him now being more familiar with Stan Van Gundy's system will benefit him the rest of the way. 

The battle of the benches will be something to keep track of as well. Orlando has steady backup at practically every position, including Jason Williams at point guard, Marcin Gortat at center, J.J. Redick at shooting guard, Mickael Pietrus at small forward, and Ryan Anderson and even Brandon Bass at power forward. I didn't get to see enough of Orlando's first two series to get a good feel for how each of these guys is used (I'm led to believe Bass sees little to no time), but I suspect that Gortat, Williams, and Pietrus see the most time out of the crew. Pietrus in particular worries me, since he just always seems to shoot well against Boston. He's on the cusp of joining the "Celtics Killers" club alongside Phoenix's Jason Richardson and the several others who are escaping my mind right now. He shot 50 percent from three-point nation in the first round against Charlotte, and topped that by hitting 52.4 percent of his threes against the Hawks. The Celtics will need to be wary of him at all times. 

As for Boston's bench, I don't see Doc Rivers veering away from the rotation he utilized against Cleveland too heavily, with the exception being Shelden Williams, who might see some time on Howard either to use his fouls or fill in for some of the other bigs if they find themselves in trouble over the course of the games. Tony Allen's defense will be needed against the likes of Vince Carter and maybe even Pietrus at times. TA was effective against the Magic back on Christmas Day while filling in for Paul Pierce, and if he finds himself in the game when Gortat's in the game, he needs to attack the rim. Glen Davis just needs to keep doing a little bit of everything, just like he did against the Cavs. He'll probably find himself up against Howard at some point, and that's where his bulk will come in handy. Given Orlando's size in the post, Davis might be better off relying more on that jump shot, as opposed to banging inside down low. If he does manage to haul in offensive rebounds, this is one series where he's probably better off kicking the ball back out in order to reset the offense. 

There are a few other things I want to mention briefly: How will the Magic come out after being off since Monday? Have they lost any sort of killer instinct they might have developed over the course of the first two rounds? I think it's fair to say the Celtics are much more talented than the Bobcats were and have 100x more fight in them than the Hawks did. Will the Magic be ready?

And as for the Celtics, they're playing arguably their best basketball of the season at exactly the right time. A short break between series might actually benefit them more than rest at this point. They're definitely looking at some different matchups compared to what they saw against Cleveland, but hopefully they can maintain the levels of offensive and defensive execution we saw later in the Semi-Finals. 

I know I didn't touch on everything, as I didn't want to drag this article on forever. Feel free to keep adding in the comments.

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