BOSTON - When the NBA scheduled the Boston Celtics' (23-4) visit to the Orlando Magic (17-12) at 2:30 p.m. on Christmas Day, it certainly expected plenty of anticipation to surround the game. What the league couldn't have predicted, however, are the current factors that will add to the game's hype.
The Celtics will head into Christmas Day riding a 14-game winning streak, not a shocking feat considering the Big Three are all healthy. But what has astonished all of the outsiders, and even some of the insiders, is that Boston has been able to rack up 14 straight wins with a roster otherwise decimated by injuries.
"Because usually when you're on a winning streak, everybody's healthy. Everybody's playing well and you're rolling," Doc Rivers said of a typical lengthy streak in the NBA. "And you can make the case it's the exact opposite with us. Everybody's not healthy, and key guys are out."
The key guys he's referring to are Delonte West, Kendrick Perkins and Jermaine O'Neal, who have all missed most, if not all, of the season due to injuries. One of those players, O'Neal, is likely to return for Saturday's game for his first playing time since Boston's Nov. 8 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
As O'Neal makes his return and the rest of the injured Celtics continue their rehab, 29 other teams have to be wondering how dominant this squad will eventually be when it inevitably reaches full health. If O'Neal plays Saturday afternoon, it will be Boston's first step toward finding the answer to that question.
On the other bench Saturday afternoon will be the Orlando Magic, who will be a week removed from two major trades that completely restructured their roster. Magic general manager Otis Smith chose to shake things up by shipping out Rashard Lewis to Washington, and Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus (along with cash considerations and a first round pick) to Phoenix. Those moves meant that four of the team's top eight players had been kicked out of the door.
In return, the Magic stocked up with Gilbert Arenas (via Washington), Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Earl Clark (all via Phoenix), which helped address the team's longstanding wish to add more scoring off the dribble.
"I just thought what we needed was a little more punch, more punch offensively," Smith said shortly after the trades were finalized. "It got down to, for us, Jameer (Nelson) had to have a good to great game in order for us to have an opportunity to look good or great. This way, you're getting a little bit more, a few more guys who can put their hands on the ball and create opportunities to score."
Paul Pierce and the Celtics haven't exactly kept Turkoglu and Arenas quiet in the past, but things might be different this time around. Orlando is in the midst of its worst stretch since the 2006-07 season, when it finished with a 40-42 record. The Magic have lost eight of their last 10 games and head coach Stan Van Gundy is struggling to settle on a rotation with his new players.
However, Orlando seemed to find a rhythm Thursday night for the first time since those trades, as it knocked off San Antonio -- which previously had the top record in the league -- by a score of 123-101. Turkoglu and Arenas were two big pieces in that win, as they finished with the top plus/minus ratings in the game of plus-24 and plus-21, respectively. It was a great game for the Magic, who shot 52.0 percent from 3-point range in that contest, but everyone must understand that it was exactly that -- one game.
We all know that when the bright lights are shining, which they will be on Christmas Day, the elite teams will rise to the top. The Celtics have already proven to be elite and will take their 14-game winning streak into the Amway Center. The Magic, despite stumbling into this contest having lost eight of 10, are looking to return to elite status and may have taken their first step toward doing so with their impressive win over the Spurs on Thursday.
Both of these teams will admit that by the time the playoffs come around, it's likely that they'll both be primed for a championship push and will likely be battling against each other for the Eastern Conference crown. Saturday will be our first taste of the new-look matchup, and it will be gift-wrapped for you by ABC.
Shaq vs. Dwight
Dwight Howard has said it in the past, and Boston's center likes to think the same: Kendrick Perkins is Howard's most difficult matchup at the center position.
However, Perkins is more than a month away from returning from offseason knee surgery, so Shaquille O'Neal will have to handle Howard in the paint on Saturday.
O'Neal was brought into Cleveland last season to be the Cavaliers' "Dwight Stopper," but he didn't get the chance in the playoffs. He'll have the opportunity Saturday afternoon, but it will be for the Celtics.
The key for Shaq to be successful against Howard is to get Orlando's center in foul trouble. Howard might be the easiest superstar in the NBA to rattle with fouls, and once he's frustrated he typically doesn't bounce back. If Shaq can establish deep post position on Howard and force him into fouls, Orlando's new lack of depth up front will be exposed. Shaq will also play the largest role in Boston's attempt to limit Howard's elite rebounding skills, which have helped him grab at least 20 boards in three of his last four games.
The last thing Boston wants to see is the Magic continue the rhythm they located Thursday night against the Spurs. Orlando had struggled offensively in its first two games after the trades, scoring an average of 90 PPG on 38.4 percent shooting. They turned that around against San Antonio and scored 123 points on 59.5 percent shooting.
In order to prevent Orlando from settling into a similar groove on Saturday, the Celtics will need to play pressure defense with consistent energy. The C's cannot afford to allow the Magic to get into their sets and play with open passing lanes or shooting cushions. With two full days to prepare -- though preparation is going to be drastically limited because Orlando's team is so new -- Kevin Garnett and his teammates should have a solid grasp on how to make that happen.
Prior to Wednesday night's game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Rivers told reporters that the one area in which he has seen consistent slippage from his team is transition defense. The Celtics harped on that during pregame, noting that the Sixers scored 22 fast break points in the teams' first matchup of the season. How did that affect the game? Philadelphia only scored six points on the break.
Boston will need to provide similar transition defense during this contest against the Magic, or else it will be in jeopardy of snapping its vaunted winning streak. Although we don't have a very large sample size to evaluate this new Orlando team, you'd have to assume that it will be at its best when playing in the open court. The Magic have a ton of athleticism, length and shooting ability, and those characteristics can add up to explosiveness on the break.
The Spurs witnessed such explosiveness first hand Thursday night, as the Magic racked up 30 fast break points, by far their highest output since coming together a week ago. To prevent that from happening in this game, Boston will need to shoot the ball effectively and, on misses, sprint back to the other end of the floor. The C's can defend anyone in the half court, but if they allow that slippage to resurface in this game, it could be a deciding factor.