Game Preview: Magic at Celtics

BOSTON – Sunday afternoon will mark the end of the rivalry between the Boston Celtics (37-12) and Orlando Magic (32-19) this season -- at least until the playoffs.

Boston and Orlando have gone down to the wire in each of their first two meetings of the season and they have also met in the playoffs the past two seasons. The two teams will close out their season series at 2:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon in the TD Garden, a game that will be broadcast nationally on ABC.

The Celtics and Magic have split their first two meetings of the season, with each team winning on its home court. Orlando’s win, an 86-78 victory, came way back on Christmas Day and featured near-nonexistent performances by both Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard. Boston responded with a 109-106 win on Jan. 17 at TD Garden despite a 33-point, 16-rebound performance by Howard inside.

While Howard will be prepared to attempt to duplicate that stellar showing again on Sunday, O’Neal will likely be nonexistent again, this time literally. He has played in each of the first two meetings between these two teams, totaling 14 points and three rebounds, but it sounds as if he will not be available for this third and final meeting of the regular season. Prior to Boston’s Friday night loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Doc Rivers said he didn’t think Shaq would play on Sunday.

With O’Neal likely sidelined with his Achilles injury, that means Kendrick Perkins will get his second start of the season, and if this one is anything like his first, Boston should be in great position to grab a win. Perkins started against the Mavericks on Friday night and notched his first double-double of the season with 13 points and 12 boards (including four offensive rebounds) and 6-of-7 shooting. Perk loves facing off against Howard, and Howard hates facing off against Perkins. We’ll get our first taste of that matchup this season on Sunday afternoon, and it’s sure to be entertaining.

While the center position is obviously important, we’ve learned through two games of this rivalry that each team’s five position likely won’t determine the outcome of the game. Both team’s big men struggled on Christmas Day, and then Howard’s monster performance on Jan. 17 wasn’t enough to help his team win the game.

This is the case because each team lives and dies by its shooting ability. Both teams fall on the positive side of that more often than not, but no team possesses the shooting ability of the Boston Celtics.

Boston heads into Sunday’s matchup as the top shooting team in the league, making a ridiculous 50.0 percent of its field goal attempts this season. One of the Celtics’ top shooting games of the season came against the Magic, a team that is typically one of the elite defensive squads in the league, on Jan. 17. Boston made 60.0 percent of its attempts in that game, leading to 109 points, while Orlando shot just 45.9 percent from the floor.

That percentage for the Magic isn’t far off of what they average for the season. Orlando ranks 11th in the league with its 46.4 percent shooting average this season, but although that number falls in the middle third of the league, everyone knows that the Magic have plenty of players on their roster who can stroke it. Five separate players on Orlando’s roster (Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson, Ryan Anderson and J.J. Redick) are each shooting at least 37.2 percent from 3-point range this season for the Magic.

Limiting Orlando’s 3-point shooting has been and will always be the key to disrupting its success. The Magic have shot the 3 at a 39.3 percent clip (22-of-56) against the C’s this season, and for that reason they are only four points away from having a 2-0 record against Boston in 2010-11.

The Celtics will live with Howard having a big game inside, but they cannot allow the Magic to catch fire from beyond the arc. That strategy worked out just fine on Jan. 17, though by a very slim margin, but Boston would gladly accept the same result on Sunday afternoon.

Control Their Bench

The Orlando Magic are a different team this season personnel-wise, but the overall concept they live by offensively essentially remains the same: shoot the ball when you’re open. That concept allows Orlando’s bench, which consists of numerous sharpshooters, to have a huge impact on games.

Rashard Lewis was traded away to the Washington Wizards back in December, but we can guarantee you that the Magic were already thinking that they had a Lewis clone who would remain on the roster. Ryan Anderson, who is making nearly 40 percent of his 3-point attempts this season, has an eerily similar game to Lewis and will stretch Boston’s defense from the power forward position. He has come on in 2011, averaging 14.8 PPG and 6.5 RPG in January. He dropped 16 points on the C’s on Jan. 17, including four treys.

In addition to Anderson, Orlando also has J.J. Redick and Gilbert Arenas coming off the bench. Each of those players can light it up at any time, and many have compared Redick’s game to that of Ray Allen when he was a youngster. Arenas has struggled since being acquired by Orlando, but we all know that he can catch fire at the drop of a hat.

Much like the starting five will have to do when it is on the court, Boston’s reserves will need to do its best to control Orlando’s reserves. The C’s will need to focus on closing out on perimeter shots and hope that they can force more misses than makes.

Close Out Strong

If you’re a betting person, you might want to make the assumption that this game is going to go down to the wire. We’re 2-for-2 in nailbiters between these two teams this season, and the odds are that a close game will likely take place again on Sunday.

The Celtics did a great job of closing out the game on Jan. 17 and holding on for a win, but they folded down the stretch on Christmas Day. The C’s led by as many as nine in the fourth quarter of that holiday showdown but couldn’t hold on for the win.

The Celtics have led for nearly the entirety of these two meetings, but the performance in clutch time is what really matters. With the likelihood of another close game looming on Sunday, Boston will need to do exactly what it did in these two teams’ last meeting, which is capitalizing on open shots and not allowing the Magic to go on a big run in the final minutes.

Don’t Allow Howard To Change Shots

There’s no doubt that Howard, the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year, is the most feared defensive player in the NBA. His height, length and athleticism allow him to block and affect shots that typically would go untouched en route to the basket.

Howard blocked five shots against the Celtics in December, and that changed how the Boston attacked the basket. Rajon Rondo was less aggressive in getting to the rack, and that caused Boston’s offense to become a bit stagnant. However, on Jan. 17, the C’s were able to get through the game unscathed in terms of blocked shots by Howard. He finished that contest with zero blocks, which is one of only three times that has happened this season. The other two occurrences? Those would be Orlando’s last two games, against the Heat and Wizards.

It seems as if Howard’s shot blocking has hit a bit of a snag of late, and the C’s would love to continue that trend. If they can avoid a big defensive night from Howard, it will allow guys like Rondo and Paul Pierce to attack the basket without fear. Such an occurrence would go a long way toward helping Boston execute its offense with precision against Orlando for the second consecutive game.