By Shaun Powell, NBA.com
Posted May 14 2010 10:10AM
Yes, we know the Orlando Magic are good. But in these NBA playoffs, are they just lucky as well?
No disrespect to Orlando -- you don't sweep two rounds by accident -- but the playoffs are falling their way. In the first round, they were gifted the Bobcats, a playoff first-timer who had that deer-in-the-headlights look. Next up, the Hawks, exposed earlier by the plucky Bucks, had nothing against Orlando and didn't even compete.
And now, the Magic draw the Celtics, who didn't beat the Cavaliers as much as LeBron James did. That's the belief, anyway. The headlines this morning scream: "LeBron Loses" and not "Celtics Win." Declared old and washed up just a month ago, the Celtics find themselves in the Eastern Conference finals, and if you gave them some truth serum, they'd admit to being surprised by that. Seriously, now: Last week, when LeBron was motivated, the Celtics lost by 29.
But whatever. It's a new day. And while it's clear which team has momentum and the championship sparkle, and which team is trying to pull off a surprise, the Celtics can be the first team to give Orlando a run. Remember, it was last year when the Celtics had the misfortune of playing the Magic without Kevin Garnett, who damaged his knee in Boston's alley fight with the Bulls. And they still took Orlando to seven games. The Magic nearly blew a 28-point lead in Game 1 and did cough up a 14-point lead in Game 5. But they're a lot wiser and mature now.
The Magic took three of four from the Celtics during the season when Vince Carter had three big games and Dwight Howard averaged 14 rebounds. But for the most part, those contests were close, which means we might be spared another Orlando sweep this series. Also, the Celtics will be motivated to squeeze out a second championship in what is very likely the last run for K.G.-Ray Allen-Paul Pierce.
The most interesting plot doesn't involve those three players, or Howard, but Rajon Rondo and Jameer Nelson. This has the makings of being a very intense and entertaining matchup. Rondo had a breakout season (All-Star) and was terrific against the Cavaliers. Jameer, injured through much of last year's postseason, is leading Orlando in scoring, assists and steals.
And just think: They'll actually see a quality point guard across the floor, for the first time in these playoffs.
Maybe Orlando will get a quality challenge for the first time as well. After all, the Celtics are championship-tested, having won it all in 2008. K.G. seems rejuvenated and relatively healthy. The Celtics did beat the team with the best record, regardless of what you think about LeBron's role. And Orlando's gotta lose a game at some point, right? Right?
Well, yes. Eventually. Still, the Magic's draw so far seems favorable and ideal. Suppose they beat the Celtics and the Suns upset the Lakers? Suppose the Magic avoid both LeBron and Kobe on the road to their first championship? Sometimes, it's nice to be lucky than good. If you're both, even better.
1. Will Dwight Howard make the Celtics pay for fouling? One of Howard's strengths, besides rebounding and shot blocking, is getting the other team into foul trouble. Although in the first series, he was the one with fouls. A wiser Howard managed to stay on the floor against the Hawks, and even make 13 of 18 free throws in one game. That's a Rick Barry percentage for Howard, a notorious brickster (59 percent) from the line. If Howard wins the foul battle and makes a decent percentage, might as well pencil the Magic for the NBA Finals right now.
2. Rondo or Jameer: Who's had the better postseason? Coin flip there. Rondo was brilliant against the Cavs, Jameer the team MVP against the Bobcats. Neither was well-regarded coming into the league; Jameer lasted until No. 20 in the 2004 draft (fourth point guard taken), Rondo at 21 in 2006, also the fourth point guard taken. Jameer was too small, Rondo couldn't shoot. But turns out they could ball.
3. Will this be a happy "homecoming" for Doc Rivers? He and his family live in Orlando and he won his Coach of the Year award with the Magic (the first time ever given to a coach who didn't have a winning record). That was his first stint on the bench in any capacity, but didn't turn out so well. The Magic cleared cap space after his first season, hoping to get Tim Duncan and Grant Hill. Duncan stayed with the Spurs, Hill arrived as damaged goods and Doc couldn't win big with Tracy McGrady. Hello, Celtics.
4. Will the extended rest help the Magic again? They had six days off after the first round and five this time. And while they didn't have any injuries that required healing, the Magic will likely be refreshed and well-schooled by Stan Van Gundy. We'll find out in Game 1, especially if the Celtics, in a quick turnaround for them, can muster enough energy.
5. After beating Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, can the Celtics overcome their third superstar? It all depends on how smart Kendrick Perkins plays and if K.G. can supply enough weak-side defensive help. Oh, and also how the refs call the game, with regards to Howard and his aggressive moves to the rim.
Orlando has run a clinic on ball movement and ball sharing. If you're open, you will be found. The basketball zigs and zags like a pinball. Five players are averaging in double figures this post-season and Howard, the first option, is fourth in team scoring. That shows the growth and maturity of Howard, who moaned about his role in the offense last spring but has accepted it now. Also, five players in the rotation are shooting 80 percent or better from the line (can you believe Howard is rubbing off on them?). Nutshell: Orlando can spread the wealth and hurt you IF the Magic hit the 3-point shot (38 percent so far).
Garnett isn't the stopper he was in the early part of the decade when he made first team All-Defensive for six straight years. But he still must be respected. Celtics rotate well for a team with old bones. Watch out for Rondo's hands, they're twitchy.
The scoring is largely limited to the Big Four, and is largely dictated by Rondo and Pierce, who assume much of the ball-handling. The Celtics don't run the offense through Garnett, the way Orlando does with Howard. Instead, they just look for the hot hand, and K.G. more or less gets his points in the flow or off the glass. Pierce has had a tough shooting post-season (just under 41 percent) and must get to the line to be effective.
The Magic are giving up just 84 points and 41 percent shooting in the post-season. Granted, they haven't played the 1986 Celtics. But their defensive, which revolves around Howard, is giving the other team's best player the fits. Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace combined were six points below their regular-season scoring averages. They're still mumbling to themselves.
Rashard Lewis came to life in the Hawks series, making half of his 3-pointers and averaged 20 points the final three games. For the postseason, Lewis is shooting above 50 percent. Remember, this time last spring, he burned the Cavs with big shots in the fourth quarter. At this point, the way he's shooting, Lewis will make a defense pay for ignoring him.
If this is Ray Allen's final spring in Boston, he's going out in style, hitting 45 percent of treys and leading the Celtics in scoring through the playoffs. Leave him open at your own risk.
Marcin Gortat had moments against the Bobcats and Hawks and is capable of giving Orlando 10-15 quality minutes. Actually, the Magic would prefer if he stayed on the bench; that would mean Howard has avoided foul trouble. But he's been a security blanket for them, and arguably was the fourth-best big man on the floor the last two series, after Howard, Josh Smith and Al Horford.
If reaching the Eastern Conference Finals doesn't jump-start Rasheed Wallace, nothing will. This is his time to show the Celtics didn't throw money away by signing him for three years.
You can't help but think the Cavaliers (with a motivated LeBron, not the guy from Games 5 and 6) might have given Orlando a better run. The old Celtic Pride will flash for a few games, but the moons are aligned for Orlando. Magic in 6.
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