By Rob Peterson, NBA.com
Posted Jan 20 2009 11:58AM
After a horrendous stretch in which they lost seven of nine games, it appears as if the Boston Celtics have regained their championship form. The Orlando Magic are trying to prove to the league they are championship worthy.
On Thursday, they meet for the second time this season, as the defending champion Celtics head to Florida for a stern test against the Southeast Division-leading Magic (8 p.m. ET, TNT).
If this meeting is more highly anticipated than the first on Dec. 1, it's because in the six weeks since a 107-88 loss in Boston, the Magic have emerged as a legitimate challenger to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference. Just ask Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
"They're winning games," Rivers said. "I think the public is finally waking up to them. Last year, they had the second or third best road record in the NBA. They advanced in the playoffs for the first time in a while. They deserve to be in the discussion.
"Right now, there's nobody in the NBA playing better than Orlando."
It's hard to argue. At 33-8, the Magic are on a seven-game winning streak and are one-half game better than the Los Angeles Lakers for the league's best record. In that streak, the Magic went 4-0 on a Western Conference swing, knocking off division leaders San Antonio, L.A. and Denver.
"Playing in those hostile environments, it's matured us, made us tougher," point guard Jameer Nelson told the Orlando Sentinel. "We kind of know how to win now."
Nelson has been a huge part of the Magic's ascendance. "He's really improved his play," said one NBA scout. "He's playing with a chip on his shoulder. He's playing for respect."
The offense starts with Nelson, often with pick-and-rolls at the top of the key, where he's quick and strong enough to get into the lane. Once there, Nelson has many intriguing offensive options. He can kick it out to Rashard Lewis or Hedo Turkoglu. He can throw a lob to All-Star Dwight Howard. Or, he can take it himself. Nelson has never been better, averaging a career-high 17.1 points per game on .511 shooting from the field.
"He started getting better in last year's playoffs," another NBA scout said
A confident Nelson means more open shots on the perimeter for the league's best 3-point shooters. The Magic average an NBA-high 10.5 3-pointers made per game and hit them at a .403 clip.
But if any team can stop, or at least slow, the Magic's perimeter attack, it's the defending champs, who have added another subtle wrinkle to the defense that led them to a title.
"What the Celtics do best is take away points in the paint," said our second NBA scout. "They have Kevin Garnett near the rim to block shots in case someone gets into the lane.
"But one of the things they'd done better over time since they first installed their defense is that they're very good at anticipating. When a guy drives, they're very good at gauging what a player is going to do and recovering in time to run at people at the three-point line."
Slowing the Magic's perimeter prowess is the key to the Celtics stealing a road win in Orlando. "What are the two plays that get the biggest cheers?" said the scout. "A big dunk or a three-pointer. If they can make the Magic shoot in the low 30s from three it doesn't make a difference what they're doing in the paint."
In the paint, our scout said, the Celtics, thanks to Garnett, are one of the few teams in the league that don't need to double Howard in the low post. "It makes it easier to defend the perimeter," said the scout.
Nothing has been easy recently for the Celtics. After a 27-2 start, the Celtics have lost to two division leaders on the road, the Lakers on Christmas and to the Cavaliers on Jan. 9. The unforgiving NBA schedule now adds another degree of difficulty to the Celtics' task.
Boston's game in Orlando will be the second of a back-to-back after a Wednesday game against Dwyane Wade and the Heat in Miami. That, and the Celtics may be without the services of starting center Kendrick Perkins, who has missed the last five games with a shoulder strain. He is listed as day-to-day.
Still, a win in Orlando could go a long way to restoring the Celtics' championship swagger. And that thought may be weighing on the minds of the Magic. "Until you beat a team, there's that thought you can't get over the hump," said the scout. "Thursday could be a big night for Orlando."
Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro doesn't have a vote in the Rookie of the Year balloting. But if he did, he doesn't need to look far to see who he thinks is the best rookie in the league, Chicago's own Derrick Rose.
"There's no debate," Del Negro said. "It's over. There's not even a conversation as far as I'm concerned. I think [O.J.] Mayo's having a great year and [Michael] Beasley is incredible player can score.
"But no one has played at the level Derrick has played at from start to finish."
Yannick Noah, the last Frenchman to win the French Open, was courtside at Madison Square Garden on Monday to see his son, Joakim, grab 18 boards in the Bulls' 102-98 loss to the Knicks ... Milwaukee's Joe Alexander, the only Eastern Conference representative in the fan voting for the Sprite All-Star Slam Dunk, finished a distant third to Portland's Rudy Fernandez ... Keep an eye out for the Nets' psyche after coach Lawrence Frank benched Devin Harris and Vince Carter for the second half of the Nets' 105-85 loss at home to the Celtics. Harris implied the move was not a popular one in the front office ... The Knicks' little used Jerome James will miss the remainder of the season with a torn Achilles' tendon.
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