By John Carroll, Scouts Inc.
Two of the hottest teams in the NBA, the Orlando Magic and the Boston Celtics are meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Orlando Magic have had a dominant playoff run going 8-0 and sweeping both the Charlotte Bobcats and the Atlanta Hawks. They have utilized a nice mixture of offense and defense to destroy their two previous opponents. The Magic are healthy and rested coming into the Eastern Conference Finals. They have four All Stars in their starting lineup with Dwight Howard, Vince Carter, Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis. In addition the Magic have the NBA’s deepest and most talented bench. The Magic have a well rounded, balanced scoring attack, and it is impossible to key on one player in order to beat them.
The Celtics who were up and down all season are finally healthy and have been able to flip the switch and play their best basketball of the 2009-10 season since the playoffs began. The Celtics upset the Cleveland Cavaliers 4-2, and will be a tough out for the Magic. Kevin Garnett is the healthiest he has been since the middle of last season. Garnett’s ability to dominate Antawn Jamison was a big reason they defeated the Cavaliers. The Celtics are playing good basketball because they have tightened up several critical components of their team. Boston is playing the best defense they have played all season. Their defensive intensity and ability to protect the rim is spectacular. The Celtics who were a poor rebounding team during the regular season have drastically improved their rebounding statistics during the past two series. Lastly the Celtics have stopped turning the ball over. They were a high turnover team during the year but have protected and taken care of the rock in postseason play.
Five Keys to Series
1. Offense- The Magic and the Celtics are two of the best defensive teams in the NBA. They both play fundamental defense, and have solid game plans to defend their opponents. In addition they play with tremendous focus and energy. Dwight Howard will anchor the Orlando defense, while Kevin Garnett will do the same for the Celtics. Both teams work hard in transition defense to minimize easy baskets, and they hard foul their opponents to protect the rim.
This series will come down to which team can run better half court offense and who can make 1-1 plays when each team takes away the primary options. There are no secrets in the Eastern Conference Finals. Each team will know the other team’s offensive sets. It will come down to executing those sets, getting tremendous ball movement, and moving their opponent from side to side.
Each team will look to exploit any mismatches as they have done in their earlier series. Turnovers will be very important key to this series. The Magic cannot turn the ball over because the Celtics are excellent at converting turnovers into points. Conversely the Celtics have been turnover prone all year. They have improved their ability to take care of the ball in the playoffs and they must do so versus the Magic.
2. Points in the Paint- Both teams are excellent offensive teams and understand the importance of playing inside-out basketball. The Celtics did a marvelous job of playing thru the post in their series with Cleveland. They fed Kevin Garnett the ball in the low box and he tortured Antawn Jamison during the six games they played. Garnett was aggressive in the post, and was willing to get up a high volume of shots for his team. He averaged 19 ppg and shot 58% from the field for the Celtics. Garnett is the Celtics only low post threat and they will need him to take Rashard Lewis into the post and work that matchup. Garnett is a big key to this series because he has a decided advantage versus Rashard Lewis in the post.
The Magic will play thru their All-Star center Dwight Howard. Howard will get deep touches in the paint by running the floor hard in transition, pick and rolls, and hitting the offensive glass. His offensive game is still a bit unrefined when he catches the ball on the box and the Magic do not give him of touches in those locations. The Magic put alot of pressure on opponents because they have surrounded Dwight with excellent 3 point shooters. It is hard to double Howard because of the ability to shoot by Nelson, Carter and Lewis. Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace will be assigned to guard Howard and their goal during this series will be to push him off the box, body him up and limit his easy baskets. If necessary they will foul him and put him to the line because he is a poor free throw shooter.
3. Point Guard- There are a few interesting match ups in this series but none more interesting than the point guard position. The duel between Rajon Rondo and Jameer Nelson may be a deciding factor in this series. This will be the toughest test so far for both players in the playoffs. Rondo has been on a tear recently. He was the best player for the Celtics in their semifinal series with the Cavaliers. In that series he averaged 20 ppg, 11 apg and 6 rpg. He has developed into a confident, mature quarterback. Rondo is a pass first point guard who can make an impact on the game without scoring a single point. Rondo can wreak havoc on the defensive end of the floor and is a big time rebounder for a point guard.
Nelson will put a lot of pressure on Rondo and the Celtics because of his scoring abilities. Jameer can score in transition or utilizing pick and rolls. The Magic are going to hit Rajon Rondo with a ton of pick and rolls during this series. If he cannot control Nelson coming off the picks he is going to cause a lot of problems for the C’s. Defensively look for Nelson to get up into Rondo and not let him get a head of steam driving to the basket. Rondo has been allowed to dribble wherever he wants in earlier series because teams are afraid of his speed. However the Magic know they have Dwight Howard to protect the rim and Rondo will have a much more difficult time finishing around the basket with him there. Look for the Magic to go under on his pick and rolls and dare Rajon to shoot. A big key in guarding Rondo is to load up on him in transition. He is deadly attacking the paint if it is only 1-1 on the fast break.
4. Defend the 3 Point Shot- The Boston Celtics must defend and limit the 3 point shot making of the Orlando Magic. The Magic tortured the Atlanta Hawks from behind the arc in their previous series. The Magic were the third best 3 point shooting team in the NBA this season shooting 37% from behind the arc. They put so much pressure on their opponents because they put Dwight Howard on the floor and surround him with three to four shooters. The Magic understand how to play inside out basketball and they will make it very difficult on the Celtics. They stretch the floor and will either run post ups or a ton of pick and rolls. They will force the Celtics make quite some hard decisions in their defensive coverage during this series.
The Celtics will probably play the post ups of Dwight Howard straight up, 1-1, with Perkins and Wallace. They do not want to help or come off their shooters. Howard is a load in the paint and the Celtics may have to double the post at some point in this series. If they do they must be exact in their double teams and rotations out of the doubles. If they are not sharp and crisp they will be vulnerable to Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter or Rashard Lewis burying shots from behind the arc.
The Celtics will have the same problems when they decide on their pick and roll coverage. The Magic will put a ton of pressure on the Celtics when they run pick and rolls. Jameer Nelson is a scoring point guard so if the Celtics do not control him he will score in bunches. If they trap the dribbler and take away the roll to the rim by Dwight Howard they will have to come off shooters. The Magic are excellent at reading the defense, seeing what is available and taking what is given to them.
5. Bench- The bench can have a drastic effect on the outcome of the series and that should be very true of this series. The Celtics bench of Rasheed Wallace, Tony Allen and Glenn Davis outplayed the Cavaliers bench and it was a factor in deciding the series. Wallace will need to provide post defense on Dwight Howard because Howard has the ability to wear down opponents and get them into deep foul trouble. The Celtics will need all of their fouls between Perkins and Wallace in order to contain Howard. In addition, Tony Allen who was big in the last series will be needed to rest Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Allen could prove very helpful locking in on Vince Carter off the bench and slowing him done offensively.
The Magic have the strongest and most reliable bench in the NBA. They have two of everything on their roster. Jason Williams, J.J. Redick, Mickael Pietrus, Ryan Anderson and Marcin Gortat have delivered for coach Stan Van Gundy when they have been called upon. Gortat may be the most valuable player off the bench. He can defend, rebound and block shots. The Magic rewarded Gortat with a sizable contract to keep him last year and he has delivered for them time and time again when Dwight Howard gets in foul trouble.
Prediction: Magic in seven