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What a difference a week makes. Last Friday, the Boston Celtics were scraping themselves off the court, embarrassed in a 124-95 beating from the Cleveland Cavaliers. The game was never close, and the Celtics appeared to be mere bumps in the path of the LeBron James Express. Since then Rajon Rondo has emerged, Kevin Garnett has returned to form, and the Celtics played team basketball en route to a three-game dusting of the Cavs. In what may have been James’ final game with Cleveland, his team was ultimately unable to keep the game close as Boston ended the Cavaliers’ season for the second time in three years. With the series win, the Celtics earned the right to face a well-rested Orlando Magic which is undefeated in the playoffs.
Because Boston’s win marked the beginning of the LeBron James Sweepstakes, the Celtics were almost relegated to back burner status in most of the nation’s sports pages. What can not be overlooked is how the Celtics transformed into a bonafide contender, mid-series, as the entire world watched them play foil to LeBron James’ in his most defining moment. As he will be allowed to ponder his future earlier than planned, the Celtics must come up with a plan of their own, in how to tackle the Orlando Magic who haven’t lost a game since the regular season.
Let’s take a look at the teams, position by position, to see how they break down:
After easily disposing of Cleveland’s Delonte West, Rondo will now take on West’s former college teammate Jameer Nelson. Nelson will definitely bring a tougher approach to defense than Rondo has seen to this point, and Rondo will have to find different ways to beat the physical guard. Nelson will likely contribute 20 points per game, but he will never be the guy to torch you.
Rondo won’t be able to drive the lane quite as successfully in this series. Dwight Howard’s size and speed will be an enormous upgrade over any of Cleveland’s bigs. That’s not to say Rondo won’t be able to score. As he has demonstrated already, his basketball IQ supersedes even his athletic ability and he will be able to adjust.
In a series with as many stars as it had story lines, it was almost easy to take for granted just how well Ray Allen has played. He continues to hit threes in big spots at big moments. He still gets to the line frequently and never misses if he’s open. His defense is as inspired as anyone on the Celtics. This may seem to be a bit biased, but the facts are the facts. With that in mind, Vince Carter has found a nice fit in Orlando, finally relieved of playing top banana. He doesn’t light it up like he used to, but he still scores, he gets to the line, and is no stranger to hitting clutch shots himself. Carter is also another unique player that allows Orlando to be extremely versatile.
Pierce found himself on the bench with foul trouble a lot more than he would have liked against the Cavs. The Celtics might want to modify their No Layups Allowed rule when Pierce is giving up his third foul to prevent a two point layup from Shaq. It just doesn’t make sense to risk valuable minutes from one of your best players. Pierce never quite found his groove in the Cleveland series, but he still hit some dagger shots in the Garden and maintained his killer instinct. He should play better against Orlando.
Pietrus and Barnes are two role players who combine to give other teams fits. Defensive specialists with three point ability, they spread the floor and give the Magic an option away from the middle where Dwight Howard garners lots of attention.
While Pierce is undoubtedly a better individual player, I think it’s Barnes and Pietrus-type players that will give the Celtics match-up problems.
Advantage: Barnes and Pietrus
Garnett’s exclamation point dunk in Game 6 against Cleveland signaled his return was complete. The possessed veteran emerged looking as healthy as he’s been in over a year and displayed why the Celtics can’t win without him. This time around he won’t be facing an aging Shaquille O’Neal or an overrated Anderson Varejao when he squares off against Rashard Lewis. Lewis will never live up to his mammoth contract, but it doesn’t disqualify him from being a good player. He’s lengthy like Garnett, but a bit faster in his younger age. Garnett will have to be careful to play within himself and not get frustrated if Lewis succeeds in tiring him out.
While Garnett’s play has been inspiring, Lewis has younger legs and the ability to drill threes. A Kevin Garnett on the perimeter is just not as effective as a Garnett in the paint.
Perkins will need to…Oh, what’s the point?
With guys like J.J. Reddick and Marcin Gortat, the Magic have even more options that contribute to their versatility. Tony Allen and Glen Davis have both showed up in big spots for Boston, but also have a penchant for mistakes that can be frustrating. Allen will make spectacular dunks and play stellar defense only to miss a simple layup minutes later. Davis likes to shoot a bit too much and lets his emotions get the better of him. Rasheed Wallace has yet to play with any lengthy consistency.
Orlando’s bench is certainly deeper and younger, but the Celtics have some proven winners with lots of experience.
Doc Rivers vs. Stan Van Gundy
Van Gundy is a better coach than he gets credit for and is pretty good with X’s and O’s but has had ups and downs with many of his players including Dwight Howard. Doc Rivers may be in the final season of his career and has a dedicated group of veterans. When Cleveland closed the gap against the Celtics Thursday night, Doc reminded them, “we have to win together!” It was an obvious statement, but they believed him and executed.
The Celtics are battle-tested and have the hardware to do it. Orland is young, athletic, and dying to get back to the Finals to avenge last year’s loss to the Lakers.
While most won’t give the Celtics a chance, their inspired play of late has been a welcome surprise. After a listless second half of the regular season, they now look like the “Ubuntu” club of two years ago. It’s difficult to count out a group of guys who may be looking at their last realistic chance at a title. The Celtics were able to stop LeBron James, effectively stopping the Cleveland Cavaliers. With so many weapons, the Orlando Magic will be far more difficult to contain. While experience is great, sometimes sheer athletic ability wins out.
Winner: Orlando (4-2)