Eastern Conference Finals Preview
It's tempting to try to frame this by the recent past: The Celts' valiant toppling of LeBron James and the Cavs; the Magic's strut-worthy dismantling of the Bobcats and Hawks. But that's all moot when the East's two most selfless and defensively complete teams meet for Sunday's opening tip. Likewise, it matters less that Boston sand-bagged the second half of the regular season to get their veterans healthy while Orlando, with its retooled lineup, cruised to 41 wins in its last 49 games. Whatever the prelude, both teams have shrewdly positioned themselves for peak efficiency in a series with no Cinderella.
Ball movement is a crucial component and virtue of both clubs. Orlando shares the rock around a parabola of three-point shooters who have space to operate because Dwight Howard (pictured below) is magnetizing defenders down low -- and when defenders try to deny the treys, they zip it to Howard for the flush. For Boston, a trio of future Hall of Famers who can both catch-and-shoot and score off the bounce fan out across the court and pass out of double-teams until one of the stars has an open look -- often enabled by point guard Rajon Rondo, who has become better than all of them this season. Both approaches result in a highly efficient offense that doesn't flinch in crunch time. And yet, both the Celtics and the Magic identify with -- and will ultimately live or die -- by the quality of their defense.
Magic won 3-1
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Jameer Nelson vs. Rajon Rondo. What these two point guards have done in the playoffs thus far is demonstrate the exquisite timing of true leadership. Their fingerprints are all over the pivotal plays that often define a game, the ones that brake and then reverse their team's reeling fortunes.
Of course, until now, both have enjoyed extremely favorable matchups. Rondo lived in the paint against Miami and Cleveland and is filing a patent on his signature layup, which finishes with a giant step to the side as he banks in an under-handed scoop. Good luck with that against Superman. And because Nelson knows Howard has his back, he can afford to get up close and personal with his bulldog physique on Rondo. He'll do the same thing on offense and go right into Rondo, who is better at driving from all angles or scrabbling sidewise to stop his man.
But Nelson's also in for a rude awakening. Rondo has another gear to his quickness that Charlotte's Raymond Felton and Atlanta's Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford simply don't possess. And speed isn't Nelson's strong suit, especially getting back in transition. If either Rondo or Nelson falters in the face of this stiffer resistance, it will be a new and sobering development for his team in this postseason.
Magic: Rashard Lewis. Once the Celts had vanquished Cleveland, their coaches and players spoke freely about "exploiting the matchup advantage" they felt they enjoyed with Kevin Garnett going against Antawn Jamison. K.G. owned Jamison in the low block and Jamison couldn't make him pay for it out on the perimeter, hitting just three of his 16 three-pointers. The Magic can't afford for Lewis to become similar prey. Thus far, the prognosis is encouraging. For the second playoffs in a row, Lewis has been deadly from outside (he's shooting 46.2 percent from beyond the arc this postseason), but the more pleasant surprise has been his defense in the paint (although, once again, the beneficial presence of Howard looms large here).
Garnett is an emotional narcissist whose intensity can elevate his team nearly as much as his superb defensive decision-making and feathery mid-range jumper. Orlando hopes Lewis can keep nailing the corner trey, while Garnett's surgically repaired knee lifts in vain to block it, or that he can deter a few of K.G.'s classic turnaround jumpers on the left block. Because a return of the self-berating Garnett we saw in midseason is good news for the Magic.
Celtics: Tony Allen. Easily the most pleasant surprise in Boston's postseason has been the performance of Allen -- the other Allen on the roster -- as an inspirational mucker who seems to emerge with the loose balls in the paint and forces elite superstars to expend extraordinary amounts of energy to get their points, while Pierce and Ray Allen gain precious rest on the pine. After Tony Allen's bang-up defense on Dwyane Wade and LeBron, drawing Vince Carter might seem like a pedestrian assignment. In any case, he's a blessing to a Celtics team that is neither as young nor as deep as Orlando.
This isn't a great matchup for Boston. Lateral movement on the perimeter is one place the team's age shows, and the Magic specialize in swaying the three-point action from side to side -- and burying nearly 40 percent of their threes. Meanwhile, Howard is a beastly deterrent to the Celtics interior passing and penetration game at the other end of the court.
But having unsuccessfully predicted the Celtics' demise in two other series thus far this playoffs, I have newfound respect for the proud teamwork and subtle diligence of every member of its starting five. Ray Allen's on-ball defense, Kendrick Perkins' devastating picks (he would be second on the team to Rondo in assists if they counted his screens as feeds), Paul Pierce's surprisingly steady handle, Rondo's floater -- they sweat the small stuff.
And there is also the ingenuity of coach Doc Rivers, whose gameplan against LeBron was a crucial cog in their ambush of the Cavs. It wouldn't surprise me if Rivers picks up where Charlotte left off in trying to get inside Dwight Howard's head. Howard must first contend with Perkins, a genuine warrior who played him tough last postseason and, like Howard, possesses a bit of a mean streak. But the whistle-baiters will likely come off the bench -- the over/under on the times Howard casually tosses "Big Baby" Glen Davis six feet across the paint is four, and Rasheed Wallace may have more fouls than field goals this series. If the refs "let them play" and Orlando finds three or four hot shooters among their seven perimeter marksmen, the Celts' lifespan will be short. If Boston punctures Orlando's mantle of invincibility by stealing one of the first two games, the next two in Boston should be fun to watch. Either way, I don't think Dwight Howard is finished demonstrating the power of postseason defense and giving the Celtics too much of their own medicine. Magic in six.
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