After emerging victorious over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, a series many thought the Boston Celtics would not survive, they move on to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in the last three seasons, to take on an undefeated Orlando Magic squad for the right to advance to the NBA Finals.
The Celtics are once again being snubbed by the so-called "experts", but these are the same experts who also predicted the C's would get squashed by the Cavs in the Semi-Finals, so take whatever they say with a grain of salt. However, the Celtics do have Timmy Legler back on their side. Legler knows he messed up last round by choosing the Cavs, but we'll forgive him. It's good to have you back, Legs.
Regardless of what the "experts" say, it seems foolhardy to think the Magic are going to waltz back into the NBA Finals. I'm here to tell you that the Celtics are 10x tougher than the Bobcats pretended to be, and they have 100,000x more fight in them, compared to what the Hawks exhibited when they were in the midst of being blown out by 40 points that entire series. The C's are a hardened group of battle-tested veterans, who find themselves playing their best basketball of the season right now, and they're very, very hungry for another title. Just ask Paul Pierce:
"Really I haven't given it thought, I'm really not that proud of this truthfully because our goal was to win a championship," Pierce said of beating the Cavaliers. "We didn't say we wanted to come into this year and beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs; our goal is a championship. We can be excited for one night, winning a game, winning a series, but I don't look at it like this made our season. The only thing that's going to make our season is winning a championship."You tell 'em, Paul. Also coming into play is the fact that the Magic have not played a competitive playoff game since last Monday, if you can call a 14-point win over a belly up Hawks team competitive. So, I'll ask the question: Will the Magic be ready for the Celtics? Or will they come out dead as a doornail, similar to how the Celtics played in Game 3 against Cleveland?
And as for the Celtics, they're finally going up against a team not built around a superstar and a mediocre cast of role players. While Dwight Howard might qualify as a superstar, his mates around him, such as Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis, and Vince Carter, are anything but mediocre. How will the Celtics fair against a team with quality talent at practically every position?
Celtics: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins
Magic: Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter, Matt Barnes, Rashard Lewis, Dwight Howard
Keys to the Game:
Live By the Three and Die By the Three: The Magic are natives of three-point nation, as they've attempted at least 23 three-pointers in all eight of their playoff games so far. They've made at least 10 three-pointers in five of their eight games so far, with the primary offenders being Jameer Nelson (40.4 percent), Rashard Lewis (46.1 percent), and Mickael Pietrus (51.2 percent). But don't count out Vince Carter, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, and even Ryan Anderson from long distance. The Magic are probably banking on the Celtics collapsing in on Dwight Howard, thus leaving Nelson free to drive the lane and kick the ball out to his sharpshooters along the perimeter.
Crash the Boards: The Magic have respectable length up front in Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis, as well as Marcin Gortat off the bench. The C's will need to limit Orlando's offensive rebounding opportunities, for fear of allowing for extra three-point field goal attempts at the basket. The more threes the Magic players take, the more they are likely to knock down. Howard is of course the Celtics' primary concern on the glass, as he's averaged 11.3 rebounds-per-game over the course of the playoffs.
Foul Ball: After battling through six games against LeBron James, the Celtics, and Paul Pierce in particular, know all about foul trouble. Hopefully, in this series, they can reverse the trend and force Orlando's best players back to the bench. There's no question that the Magic will want Howard's arch enemy, Kendrick Perkins, to pick up two quick ones early on, but the C's need to respond by taking the ball to the rim and forcing the issue against the Magic's big man. The same can also be said for Rashard Lewis, who presents a fairly difficult matchup for Kevin Garnett. If the C's can somehow plague him with fouls, Garnett's life should be easier, and it could keep Lewis from finding a consistent three-point rhythm.
Pick Your Poison: I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's highly unlikely that the Magic will be able to stop Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, AND Paul Pierce. Matt Barnes might be effective chasing Ray around all of those screens, but Vince Carter could very well struggle with Pierce, and Jameer Nelson won't be able to contain Rondo all by himself. Who's going to have the big game? It could very well vary game by game, but I'm personally counting on Pierce.
Rasheed, Rasheed, Rasheed: Why do I keep supporting this guy? At this point, I'm ready to label myself as the official driver of the Rasheed Wallace Bandwagon. His play has in fact gotten better as the playoffs have moved along, and he served as one of the main reasons why the Celtics were able to win both Games 2 and 6 against Cleveland. Starting in Game 4 against the Cavs, his overall energy level picked up, and as the stakes rose, so did his level of play. His defense on Dwight Howard will be valuable, and the C's might very well need him to consistently knock his threes down, as it could draw Howard out of the paint and remove Orlando's best help defender. Also, keep an eye on Rasheed poking away the entry passes when he's guarding Howard in the post.
Keep An Eye on the Injuries: Kendrick Perkins is battling a banged up right knee, while Matt Barnes is suffering from a bad back. Seeing as both are set to guard key components of the opposite team, keep a stray eye on how both are fairing early on.
As always: Let's Go Celtics.