1. Key Questions For Eastern Conference Finals
Five key questions at the outset of the Magic-Celtics series:
Henry Abbott, ESPN TrueHoop: This being played in a loop.
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN TrueHoop: As a defensive unit, the Celtics are savvy, intuitive and physical. There's a reason the Cavs went only 27-for-98 from beyond the arc in the conference semifinals. The Celtics rarely make the types of bad decisions that the Magic exploit with open looks. Orlando will have to work every bit as hard for points as it did against Charlotte -- except Boston can actually score.
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: Can Rashard Lewis guard KG in the post? KG's dominance of Antawn Jamison down low in the Cleveland series was huge. If he exploits Lewis the same way, the Magic will be in trouble.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: A tight whistle. Foul trouble on Dwight Howard is the main weapon Boston has to make this series competitive.
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: The Kevin Garnett-Rashard Lewis matchup. Orlando didn't have to deal with him a year ago, and KG is playing at his highest level since the championship season and was especially sharp against Cleveland.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: The Celtics have a tremendous amount of confidence when their four best players are healthy. Garnett looks as spry as he looked for months and there are no pecking-order issues because everyone has fallen in line behind Rondo. The Celts expect to win this series, which makes them dangerous.
David Thorpe, Scouts Inc.: Boston's defense. It's like a constricting snake -- the more you struggle, the tighter its grip gets. Orlando must take what's there initially and not wait for the perfect shot, because it will not come often.
2. What one thing should Celtics fans fear most?
Abbott: This being played in a loop.
Arnovitz: Orlando's brutal efficiency on both ends of the court is the stuff of coaches' nightmares. With Howard on the block or as a high screener and shooters surrounding the perimeter, it's virtually impossible to cover the entire floor against Orlando -- but that's what beating the Magic in a seven-game series will require. Defensively, the Magic give up nothing easy. There are no Mo Williamses or plodding big men to abuse.
Broussard: If Kendrick Perkins is constantly in foul trouble. His ability to guard Dwight one-on-one is crucial to the Celtics' success.
Hollinger: The benches. Even if Boston's starters can play the Magic's first five to a draw, its second unit looks overmatched on paper against Orlando's deep, talented squad.
Sheridan: Orlando's fast passes and Boston's old legs. If the Magic start swinging the ball around as well as they did against Charlotte and Atlanta, they'll get the open 3-point looks they'll need to win this series.
Stein: We can certainly debate how much momentum carries over from the Atlanta sweepage, but no team out there has a better mix of offensive and defensive balance than the Magic. No one.
Thorpe: Orlando's shooters. They can break open a tight game quickly. Staying home outside and leaving Perkins on Howard will be the matchup to watch.
3. Rank the All-Star wing players (Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Paul Pierce) in terms of what you expect in this series.
Abbott: 1. Pierce had a lot of trouble getting things done against Cleveland, but against Orlando in the playoffs he has been strong.
2. Lewis' job is to stretch the floor against teams that want to pack the paint, and the Celtics like to pack the paint.
3. Allen is a pro's pro and will win some games by himself.
4. Carter always has been impossible to predict. When he's good Vince, the Magic are far and away the best team in the league. When he's not, they're vulnerable.
Arnovitz: 1. Lewis will have a lot to say about the Magic's offensive success in this series. Tom Thibodeau's solid defensive scheme emphasizes walling off the paint and pressuring the ball side. Lewis will have opportunities from his perch beyond the arc on the weak side. Will he capitalize on them?
2. Allen. Howard's presence will make it challenging for Boston to score inside. One way to scramble a tough Orlando defense is to have Allen flying around screens and navigating the baseline. He'll have to drain some big shots for the C's to have a chance.
3. Carter doesn't have to be the difference-maker in this series. He just has to make a difference. He can do that by breaking down the Celtics' defense with smart drives, timely kickouts and good shot selection. He's got it in him.
Broussard: Ray will have some awesome games and a couple of nine-pointers, but his 3-point shooting will play a pivotal role in the series. Pierce will be much better than he was vs. Cavs. He won't have to guard a LeBron, so he won't be sapped of energy for offense. I expect three high-quality games from Vince. In the others, he'll range from non-existent to mediocre. If he ups the big games to five, Magic win. Lewis will have a couple of big games, but he won't carry series in any way. He'll hit a few clutch 3s, though.Hollinger: 1. Pierce. Clearly the best two-way player of the bunch and one who will have to badly outplay counterpart Matt Barnes for Boston to have a shot at winning the series.
2. Carter. A lightning rod for scorn from media and fans alike, but has played very well since the start of February. For all his faults as a leading man, he's devastating as a third option.
3. Lewis. A walking matchup problem who can space the floor with his 3-point shooting and post up smaller players in switches, but he'll have his hands full guarding Garnett.
4. Allen. Comes off a very productive second round, but was shut down by J.J. Redick in this series a year ago and will have to do much better this time around for Boston to win.
Sheridan: Allen, Lewis, Pierce, Carter. Hard to believe I'm putting Allen at No. 1 after what went down the past two postseasons, but he has been perkier and more productive than I've seen him in ages. Lewis gets second because he'll pull KG away from the basket, and Pierce drops to third after being stifled for a series by LeBron. Carter is going to get knocked around, which usually adversely affects him.
Stein: Pierce and Allen have the more decorated résumés as proven champions, but I suspect Carter and Lewis will get the easier opportunities in this series because of all the attention-drawing options Orlando possesses offensively.
Thorpe: I'm looking at Pierce and Lewis as the top two perimeter players in this series. Paul can do his damage from anywhere, using his body to hurt Barnes inside while knocking down three's, but I feel Lewis will be the difference maker overall. Garnett prefers to stay near the paint, and the Celts are best when he's there, so Lewis will have his chances (many of them) to hurt Boston from deep. And when they close him out, he's faking and attacking and scoring.
4. Which point guard-big man combo do you expect more from in this series?
Abbott: Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett are about as good as any big-little combination in these playoffs, and they've played better competition than the Magic have. But the production has really favored the Orlando players, thanks to Jameer Nelson's amazing play. Even though a lot of Howard's contributions have been in defense, the two Magic players are both in the league's top 20 in playoff player efficiency rating. Nelson's an amazing fourth, and Howard's 14th. Rondo is 17th and Garnett is 31st.
Arnovitz: Each tandem has its own set of challenges. Garnett looks nimble, but will he be able to multitask between chasing Lewis around the perimeter and helping out in the interior? Rondo has been a lightning bug, but those open seams to the rack just got a lot smaller. Nelson has been a maestro -- but now must deal with one of the best on-the-ball defenders in basketball. And Howard will have to withstand a front line that specializes in frustrating opposing big men. This will be fun.
Broussard: Rondo-KG, but it's close. I think Rondo will be better than Jameer, beating him into the lane consistently. But I expect Dwight will be better than KG, particularly on the glass.
Hollinger: Nelson-Howard. As good as Rondo has been in the first two rounds, Nelson has been even better. And unlike Rondo's previous opponents, Nelson has the foot speed to stay near him on defense and prevent him from running the offense from inside the 3-point line.
Sheridan: Tough one, because the Magic need Howard and Nelson to at least make this a wash, but I give the edge to Rondo-KG because they were the two best Celtics in the second round versus Cleveland, whereas Dwight has been and probably will continue to be in foul trouble, and he is not as much a key to the Magic's success as Rondo is to the Celtics.
Stein: Rondo was the best player in the Cleveland series, and KG wasn't far off. If those two can do that again, lots of folks on a suddenly crowded Magic bandwagon will soon be feeding on crow. But that's a lot to ask in an Orlando series.
Thorpe: This is very close, but I give the edge to Nelson and Howard. Rondo rattled Mo Williams, but getting to Nelson is far more challenging. He's so locked in right now, and so confident. He's also constantly working on Howard's mentality, so even if Boston controls the paint for three quarters, Howard can suddenly erupt in the fourth.
5. Who wins the series?
Abbott: Orlando. Boston manages to turn every playoff series it ever plays into a dogfight with that most honorable effort on defense, but the Magic are the better team and have home-court advantage.
Arnovitz: Orlando. The Magic have the best offense remaining in the postseason coupled with the stingiest defense. They're indomitable until proven otherwise.
Broussard: Celtics in seven. They're the mentally tougher team. They can guard Dwight one-on-one, and Jameer won't run roughshod over Rondo like he did against Ray Felton and Mike Bibby.
Hollinger: Orlando. The Magic are 27-3 with a plus-14 scoring margin in their past 30 games, have home-court advantage, won three of the four regular-season meetings and beat Boston last year with Rafer Alston in place of Jameer Nelson. They have the best players, more depth and more rest. There's simply no plausible reason to bet against them.
Sheridan: Orlando in seven on the strength of its 3-point shooting, and Howard raising his game to a new level during the course of the series. I'd even venture to say his free throw shooting takes a sharp turn for the better.
Stein: Orlando in six. The Magic's offensive prowess will trump Boston's suffocating D.
Thorpe: Orlando in six games. They just have too many weapons to control for four out of seven games.
2. Breaking Down Rondo-Nelson
3. Magic's Hot: 27-3 run
No, this goes much deeper. Orlando is on a torrid hot streak, and nobody seems to have noticed.
Want to guess the Magic's record in their 30 games since March 1?
Would you believe 27-3?
Yes, 27-3. That's not a typo. That's the Magic's mark on a slate in which 18 of the 30 opponents were playoff teams. And before you dismiss the most recent opposition so easily, remember that the Hawks team they handled so easily won more games than Boston, San Antonio and Portland and as many as Denver and Utah. In fact, the Hawks beat all those teams at least once, as well as the Lakers and Suns, and swept Boston 4-0.
So the Magic have beaten a lot of good teams. Actually, that's an understatement. They aren't just beating people -- they're killing them. Twenty of the 27 wins have been by double figures, and many were one-sided beatdowns -- such as the wins by 43 and 30 over Atlanta in Games 1 and 3. Monday's win, by a mere 14 points, barely moved the needle on their average victory margin.
5. NBA Video Channel
Kurt Helin, ProBasketballTalk
Matt Moore, Hardwood Paroxysm
Each individual provided a quick breakdown of the series between the Magic and the Boston Celtics, his opinion on the player who has been the most impressive for Orlando in the postseason (up to this point) and more. What type of matchup advantages do you foresee the Magic having against the Boston Celtics? Arnovitz: Boston will have a much more difficult time getting [Rajon] Rondo loose through the seams of the Magic's defense. Orlando's pick-and-roll defense is exceptional, but the Magic won't be without challenges. Will Vince Carter be up to chasing Ray Allen along the baseline, or do you switch off those back picks? Can Rashard Lewis check Kevin Garnett on the block, or do you let [Dwight] Howard contend with anything inside 10 feet? Helin: Depth, for one. The Orlando bench is far deeper and better than Boston's. But I think the matchups in this one among starters will be pretty entertaining. Kendrick Perkins is a good defensive center who will give Howard some problems, but Howard can still get his. [Jameer] Nelson and Rondo will be fun to watch. Ray Allen trying to get away from Matt Barnes. Paul Pierce versus Vince Carter. (Who would have seen that coming four years ago?) Lewis will pull Garnett and his help defense away from the paint, but a healthy Garnett is a tough cover for Lewis. In the end, I think the way Orlando has moved the ball -- the one way to break down the Boston defense -- will get the Magic open 3s and win the series. Moore: Everyone is going to want to say Kevin Garnett will be the difference. Don't buy it. Garnett can't defend the range of Lewis, and Lewis' ability to draw him out, then blow by him is well documented. The stretch 4s for the Magic are still going to be a huge factor in this game. I like Jameer Nelson to offset Rajon Rondo's impact by doing damage of his own. I like Vince Carter over Ray Allen, who will need even more screens to get free against fresher legs, especially if the Magic sic J.J. Redick on him again. Strangely, the only matchup I don't like is Dwight Howard against Kendrick Perkins. Perkins was a beast in the first two round, muscling out Jermaine O'Neal and Shaq. It'll be interesting to see if Howard picks up where he left off or fades again.
7. Shard Time
The last time Boston and Orlando played at Amway Arena back on Jan. 28, Rashard Lewis celebrated with teammate Dwight Howard after scoring the winning shot.
8.Half-Man, Wholly Compelling
ESPN The Magazine
Believe it or not, this is the deepest Vince Carter has ever been in the playoffs. That's not entirely his fault, of course, but since he's always been "the man" on his teams, it's important to point out that historically this man shoots worse in the playoffs than he does in the regular season: 42 percent versus 45 percent.
Of course everyone shoots blanks every now and then -- witness LeBron James' Game 5 performance against Boston. But it just seems Carter's gun is always empty when his team needs its superstar to be a killer the most. I'm sure Carter's 42 percent shooting in this postseason is not what the Magic were expecting when they traded for him in the offseason and let last year's go-to guy, Hedo Turkoglu, walk in free agency. But it is better than Carter's sub-40 percent clip in his last playoff appearance for New Jersey in 2007, so I guess there's hope.For better or for worse Carter is the starting shooting guard and No. 1 scoring option for these Orlando Magic, and if they do win it all, he has to receive some credit. At 33, he may be past his prime, but last season's Eastern Conference champions did not bring him in to be a spark. They brought him in to get the team over the hump, and they are hoping that there are still enough big shots left in that battered body of his to do so. The first "Superman," Shaquille O'Neal, needed young perimeter superstars Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade to help him win it all. By comparison, Dwight Howard, the second "Superman," is looking at old man Carter. It's weird to think of Carter that way. Old man. But for a guard 12 years into the league, that's exactly what he is now. A championship won't erase his past, nor will it make him a surefire Hall of Famer. But perhaps it will be the balm he uses in retirement to soothe all the aches and pains from being knocked down -- both literally and metaphorically.