Where we are now, and why the Magic are in trouble...
(Promoted from our Fanposts. We ran drza44's article before the Cleveland series and it worked out, so let's see how this goes...)
Every since January, I've been in here trying to convince everyone that this year's Celtics were still elite, merely injured. All of that culminated in my prediction article from before the Cavs series, where I made the leap that IF the Celtics really were as good as I thought they were, they would beat the Cavs in 6 games.
Now, with that Cavs series in the rear view mirror, I no longer have to fight to convince this audience that this year's Celtics are for real. Even if the majority of the basketball "experts" still think the team is a fluke, around these parts we are pretty much all back on-board the train towards 18. So as I look towards the start of the Eastern Conference Finals, I no longer have to argue that the Celtics are still elite...which gives me more space to really get into the match ups to break down this series. A series which has great potential for entertainment, but one that I think will ultimately end similarly to the way that the last one did.
The 2010 Magic have some similarities with the 2008 Pistons that the Celtics met in their last ECF appearance. Both teams had great balance between offense and defense (top-6 in NBA in both categories), and both teams have offensive game plans built around multiple interchangeable very good scorers as opposed to one transcendent scorer with a supporting cast. This type of approach is very difficult to game plan against defensively, as the offense is much more dynamic and versatile than what the Cs faced from the Cavs or Heat. On the other hand, it also makes it less likely that a single player can consistently beat us, which means that if we can consistently take away 1 or 2 options that may be enough if the others aren't enough to beat us alone. This is a key, and a good jump-off for a look ahead to exactly what the Magic bring to the table.
Jameer Nelson is experiencing a coming out party thus far in the postseason, leading the Magic in scoring as the ringleader in the offense. He was a 2009 All Star before injuries derailed his season, and this postseason he is validating that selection. Nelson is more of a scorer than a pure point guard, and while quick he is not the lightening bolt that Rajon Rondo is. Instead, Nelson relies upon a much improved mid-range and long-range game as well as rim attacks against advantageous coverage to make his mark. A lot of his opportunities are created due to imbalances in the opposition's team defense, caused by Dwight Howard grabbing attention down low in conjunction with the threat of scorers Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis scoring from the wing.
Carter has been one of the best scoring wings of his generation, right there with Paul Pierce as a scoring dynamo that can get his points in multiple ways. He was once known for his athleticism and tomahawk jams, but these days he relies a lot more upon his long-range jumper than on his leaping ability. For much of the year he could not find his shot, but he woke up down the stretch and finished the season strong.
Lewis is what has become known as a "stretch power forward", meaning that he operates often from behind the 3-point line to stretch the opposing defense. He also is good off the dribble, with a quick first step that can get him by most traditional 4s that try to guard him out to the perimeter. He has also been on fire this postseason, shooting 54% from the field and 46% from the 3-point line in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Finally, Howard is their offensive post presence. Most of his "best center in the league" mantle comes from his defense and rebounding, but he is still a dangerous offensive threat. He doesn't have much in the way of post moves, but he is so strong, so quick, so athletically explosive that he can score 20 points and dominate the offensive glass even without much technique. Despite being fourth in playoff scoring for the Magic entering the series, Howard is actually the key to everything that they do offensively as the attention that he garners from opponents breaks down the defense and opens up space for the perimeter threats to operate.
The rest of the Magic offense is comprised of very good role players, primarily shooters like Mickael Pietrus, J.J. Reddick, Matt Barnes, and Jason Williams. Marcin Gortat also provides them with a solid sub for Howard on both offense and defense. Their depth players are dangerous and should definitely be accounted for, but ultimately it is their big-four that will determine their offensive destiny.
Defensively, everything that the Magic does is predicated on the help-defense and rebounding of Howard, the 2-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year. His presence on the back line is what allows them to play with four scorers as opposed to needing another blue-collar type. He often protects some of his defensively questionable teammates, as they can afford to be more aggressive on the perimeter with the knowledge that Howard's presence is a deterrent to their man attacking the paint. The Magic also utilize Barnes and Pietrus as more traditional "wing defensive stoppers" whose primary goals are to minimize the impact of opposing wings. Finally, despite not having much of a reputation for defense, Lewis has proven himself to be a dangerous defender for the Magic as well. His quickness allows him to be aggressive on the perimeter against face-up 4s, and his length (and Howard's help) prevents opposing 4s from being able to dominate him in the post. All in all, the Magic defense is a formidable unit.
So, now that we know the enemy, what can the Celtics do about them?
When we have the ball, our offense should look much different against the Magic than it did against the Cavs. The Cavs did not have much in the way of big man help defenders, and Mo Williams is a terrible 1-on-1 defender. This helped set up Rajon Rondo to explode in that series, as he could repeatedly take the ball to the rim and either score, draw the foul, or set up his teammates for easy layups. Rondo should be able to get by Nelson just as easily, but Howard's presence in the paint will likely limit his ability to finish at the rim and thus blunts the edge of the biggest offensive weapon we wielded against the Cavs. The good news, though, is that Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen all have favorable matchups against their Magic counterparts which means that they should each be dangerous scoring threats that can hurt the Magic. Plus, all of the Big 3 can score consistently from both the perimeter and the paint, a versatility that could limit Howard's defense effectiveness. Whereas against the Cavs it was mainly Rondo and Garnett doing the offensive damage, in this series I expect the scoring load to be more evenly distributed.
Defensively, the news is potentially even better, as the Celtics are ideally suited to defend what the Magic like to do. It starts with Perk, who is one of the few players in the league that has the strength and length to defend Howard 1-on-1. The second defensive key is KG, and more specifically his health. If healthy, he is one of the few that can defend Lewis well even out to the 3-point line while also remaining disruptive to those that would try to drive. If Perk and KG can limit Howard and Lewis while still controlling the paint, that would allow Rondo, Pierce and Ray to really stay home on the Magic perimeter players which should disrupt their entire offensive focus. Thus, our defensive frontcourt is perhaps the most important group that we have if we want to defeat the Magic.
Our series wild card is Rasheed Wallace. In many ways, this series is the reason that he is a Boston Celtic right now. If we get "Good Sheed", who showed up in Games 2 and 6 against the Cavs, the Magic are in trouble. Good Sheed has shown in the past that he can, like Perk, defend Howard 1-on-1 and frustrate the big man. But Good Sheed is also a long-range shooting threat, and if he can prove himself dangerous from the perimeter then Howard would have to come out of the paint to defend him (or else the Magic would have to rely more heavily upon their perimeter defenders to rotate, which opens up other cracks). Either way, a crunchtime line-up featuring the four All Stars and Good Sheed would have the ability to decimate the Magic. Of course, the Good Sheed sightings this season have been few and far between. In fact, before last series many here no longer believed Good Sheed existed. So it'd be dangerous to rely upon him completely...but Sheed has said all along that he was here for the postseason and not the regular season. So if he holds to that, and continues to ramp his game up against the Magic...dangerous.
In summary, after looking at the match ups, the Celtics are built to beat this team. The danger in the Magic is their versatility, but the Celtics have even more ways to attack than the Magic do. The Celtics also have the edge and swagger that comes with knowing that they are champions, while the Magic just hope that they are. Finally, and this ties back to my themes from previous articles...the Celtics are just better than the Magic. The Magic, like those Pistons were, are a very good team that is on a roll and has convinced the majority of the experts that they will send the Celtics home. But the Celtics are rottweilers, and as the Captain pointed out last year Orlando looked like poodles against the Lakers. This Magic team is better than they were a year ago, but I'm still confident that the big dogs come out on top. Celtics in 6.