This year's 2010 Eastern Conference Finals matchup is a face off between the Eastern Conference Champions of the past two seasons. The Orlando Magic have breezed through the playoffs thus far, sweeping the Bobcats in the opening round, and then the Hawks in the semifinals by an average of over 25 points per game. They are well rested, and are hungry for the title after being denied by the Lakers a year ago. The Celtics on the other hand have had to battle to reach the Finals. They defeated the D-Wade and the Heat in five games, then King James and the Cavs in six. This could very well be the last shot at a championship for the "Big Three." Rajon Rondo has been the catalyst for the C's, averaging nearly 42 minutes a game in the series against LeBron and company, and Kevin Garnett is playing his best basketball since the '08 Finals against the Lakers.
The Magic present a new type of challenge for Boston. In each of the first two rounds, the Celts had to contain a single superstar with a mediocre supporting cast. Against Orlando, they will have to play excellent team defense to be successful defensively. That's not to say the Magic don't have any star players. They are led by four time All-Star and reigning two time Defensive Player of the Year, Dwight Howard. Howard, or self proclaimed "Superman," towers at 6-11 with the wingspan of a 787. Physically, he is a freak of nature and has a unique skill set that includes an incredible vertical reach and a surprising amount of coordination.
He leads the playoffs with nearly four blocks per game and will certainly cause problems for the driving Celtics guards. Howard is a weapon at both sides of the court. He also leads all postseason players in field goal percentage at 67.8%. Kendrick Perkins will get the bulk of the minutes against him. Perk has done a great job on Dwight in the past. In fact, Howard thinks of him as one of the best interior defenders in the league. While doing some guest writing for ESPN, Howard said this of Kendrick, "He is a really good low-post defender. He knows how to use his body to his advantage."
Offensively for Boston, Paul Pierce will need to rebound from a weak series against the Cavs. He only averaged 13.5 points per game against Cleveland, but in his defense he was matched up against LeBron on both sides of the court during most of his minutes. No disrespect to Vince Carter or Rashard Lewis, but I have a feeling Paul will have much more success against the aging vets than the two time league MVP. Boston has gotten great contributions from all members of the team, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, KG, Glen Davis, and Tony Allen all played important roles in getting the C's to the Conference Finals against the Magic.
Rajon Rondo vs. Jameer Nelson
This matchup of two rising stars in the league will be a fun one to watch. Rajon and Jameer both play hard-nosed defense, but have different forte's on the offensive end. Nelson is a knock down shooter from the outside with the ability to drive and score in bunches. He is certainly a better ballhandler than Rondo's last foe, Mo Williams, was. Rondo, on the other hand, is a playmaker. He has excellent court vision and is able to see how certain plays will progress before they happen. He has stepped into a leadership role and often directs his teammates on the offensive end in a quarterback like manner. Rondo can finish well near the basket with lay-ups, dunks, floaters, and jumpers on a regular basis. He also regularly displays dazzling passes and consistently finds open shooters.
Ray Allen vs. Vince Carter
Although Carter is only listed as an inch taller than Ray, he has the size advantage and can shoot over Ray fairly well. He averaged close to 19 points per game in Orlando's four games against the Hawks. He is a very streaky scorer. Allen and company need to prevent him form getting open looks early. If he gets into a rhythm, the Celts will be in trouble. Defensively however, Carter will have his hands full with Ray. His body will take a physical toll out their running around Perk and Big Baby picks all game. We all know what Ray can do when he gets hot. He is one of the best pure shooters of all-time and I expect him to uphold that reputation against the aging UNC alum.
Paul Pierce vs. Matt Barnes
Coming into the series, Paul must be thinking, "Someone not named LeBron James I get to match up with. Thank God!" Pierce had a tough series scoring-wise against the Cavs. Although he did hit some big shots late in Games 5 and 6, his biggest contribution to the team was guarding King James whenever he was on the court. I expect Pierce to have some big games against Barnes. Barnes is capable of knocking down open shots, but is stuck with a tough matchup. He's also ice cold after shooting 1-7 from beyond the arc last series. The biggest difference he can make is bringing energy to the team and making hustle plays.
Kevin Garnett vs. Rashard Lewis
This is without a doubt the biggest mismatch. KG can dominate 'Shard on the offensive end Garnett put on a clinic against the Cavs, showing off every post move in his repertoire and draining baseline jumper and baseline jumper. He abused Shaq and Antawn Jamison worse than Rondo did Mo Williams. He shot just over 52% from the field against the aging Cleveland duo. Rashard is more than capable of hitting open shots from the outside, but if his shot isn't falling, he can't hang with KG in the paint. I expect the Celtics to post Garnett up on a continuous basis and let him go to work on Lewis..
Kendrick Perkins vs. Dwight Howard
This will be a back and forth battle in the paint all game, every game. Howard is an incredible player, no doubt about that. However, Perk can definitely keep him in check if he stays out of foul trouble. When watching the game, look at how Perkins uses his lower body to keep Dwight away from the basket. That is called interior defense my friends. Superman may still go for 20-20 a couple nights, but he'll have to work for his points against Perk. I'm really hoping the media finally recognizes Perk as a great defender during this series. With three future Hall of Famer's and a rising superstar, he doesn't get the credit and attention he justly deserves.
Glen Davis, Tony Allen, Rasheed Wallace vs. Mickael Pietrus, JJ Redick, Marcin Gortat
Boston's bench came up huge against Cleveland, especially in Games 5 and 6. The Celts reserves outscored those of the Cavs 56-42 in those contests. Tony Allen undoubtedly made the biggest team contribution, frustrating LBJ defensively, and cutting to open space and finishing offensively. Glen "Big Baby" Davis always provides instant energy and can makes open jumpers fairly regularly. Rasheed Wallace can score efficiently in the post, but is a massive liability on defense. He showed a previously unseen side of his game in the latter stages of the Cleveland series, rebounding the ball and hustling, but I'm not convinced he's a changed player.
For Orlando, Mickael Pietrus can shoot with the best of them and has a solid all-around game. He could be a starter on a lot of teams in the league. JJ Redick, the all-time leading scorer at Duke University, is also a lights out shooter when he gets going. Marcin Gortat is my kind of player. He's a lunch pail guy. When he plays, he isn't flashy. You won't see him on any highlight reels, but the guy is a rugged defender and is a beast on the boards. Big Baby will have his hands full with the "Polish Hammer."
Keys to the Series:
Don't Worry Stopping Superman, Take Out the Rest of the Wonder League: DH12 is going to inflict his damage, but if the C's lose the series it will be because guys like Nelson, Carter, and Lewis have huge games. On defense, the guards can help out on Howard to an extend, but an outright double will do more bad than good. The Magic are a deadly three-point shooting team. Giving them easy opportunities like that would be foolish.
Give KG the Ball: It's simple. Just throw him the ball on the post 30 times a game, and he'll get you 40+ points between scoring and passing to cutters/open shooters. The Big Ticket makes great decisions with the basketball. Getting him the ball early in the game will be important. But even when he does, the C's have a bad habit of going away from it. I don't know whether it's KG's unselfish nature or Rondo wanting to get others involved, but if he's scoring keep giving him the ball!
Stay Out of Foul Trouble: Throughout the Cleveland series, Celtics players dealt with foul trouble. Paul Pierce picked up two early fouls in almost every one of the six games. Perk and KG also had multiple bouts with foul trouble. I realize a lot of this has to do with the refs loving LeBron, but it can't happen again against Cleveland. Perk especially needs to stay out of foul trouble as he's the only Boston player who can match up with Howard. We need him on the court for as long as possible.
Extend the Floor: The Magic are one of, if not the best outside shooting team in the NBA. If Carter, Lewis, Pietrus, and the rest can keep the Celtics honest near the three-point line, that will give Dwight Howard more room to work in the paint. Running the offense through the big man will work well if the shots are falling from the outside. In fact, if Orlando is converting form the inside and the outside, the Celts will be in for a trough series.
Clear Out for Nelson: Jameer Nelson can spark the Orlando offense if he gets into the lane. There are times the offense is dead when I watch them play. They can't score and are turning the ball over again and again. They always turn to Nelson, not Howard or Carter, in these moments. He's the one who has his hands on the ball most of the time the Magic have possession. If they just run an isolation for him at the top of the key, he can create his own offense and get good looks
Let Superman Do His Job: In my opinion, Orlando's biggest problem in the last two postseasons has been not giving the ball to Howard often enough. He should touch the ball on every possession. He is that dominant at his position. He is at a comparable level to guys like D-Wade, LeBron, and Kobe. If he were a guard he would get the ball that often. The guy scores or picks up a foul on probably three out of every five times he gets the ball.
Kevin Garnett: I know KG's licking his chops at the thought of playing against Rashard Lewis. In Game 6 of the Cleveland series, he scored 22 points and pulled down 12 rebounds. Against the Magic, he can put those totals up every night. These games mean a lot to him, after missing last year's disappointing series against the Magic. The C's really missed his intensity last year, although he isn't the Captain, he is definitely their emotional leader. After hearing him from the bench in last year's postseason, Lewis had this to say of KG, Even when he’s not playing, he’s still doing the same thing on the sideline ... He’s always on the bench talking, almost like he was on the court playing."
Kendrick Perkins: Guarding arguably the best big man in the game will be no easy task for Perk, but he always steps up against the best of the best. I anticipate him to give Howard trouble defensively. I don't think KG, Big Baby, or Sheed stand a chance against Superman. Perk is the only one who can handle him. I would go as far to say that Perk is the Celtics most important player coming into the series. If he can stay out of foul trouble and stop Howard, the C's will likely advance to the NBA Finals.
Dwight Howard: With LeBron and the Cavs out of the way, this is surely Howard's best chance to win his first championship. He drove the Magic all the way to the NBA Finals last year, but ran out of gas down the home stretch. against the Lakers This year, he's well rested and even hungrier than last. Dwight is one of those players who you can only do so much to stop. There's a point where he's just too good. When he is knocking down those contested shots and pulling down every single rebound, the Magic are damn near unbeatable.
Jameer Nelson: Nelson will have to come up big in this series if the Magic want to return to the Finals. He has always played well in big games, going back to his time at St. Joes, when they went undefeated in the regular season. Nelson missed most of last year's postseason action with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Although he was able to come off the bench in the NBA Finals to contribute, he was far from 100%. This year, I expect him to make up for the time he missed in the '09 playoffs.
-The Big Three averaged over 60 points per game for the series
-The Magic shoot lights out in at least one game and blow Boston out
-Celtics take it in 7
Game 1 starts tomorrow afternoon at 3:30 eastern time in Orlando's Amway Arena.