As I sit down to write this preview, I don't know who I am going to pick. As I take you through this analysis, I will be trying to make up my mind as well as inform. Hopefully, the process will be revealing for you. This is going to be a fascinating series, one way or another. Based on what we've seen so far in the playoffs, I wouldn't be surprised by anything. The Magic could romp. So could the Celtics. Or it could go the distance. While I've got some initial thoughts about which way it's going to go, I don't quite yet know which way my vote is going to be cast. I do know that I'm rooting for the latter scenario--a seven-game series--because, frankly, I felt a little cheated by the second round.
For the second year in a row, we've ended up with an Eastern Conference Final that we weren't really anticipating. Last year, the Celtics seemed to be on a collision course with the Cavaliers, until Kevin Garnett went down. Still, Boston pushed Orlando to seven games in an outstanding second-round series. While the Celtics were playing without Garnett, the Magic were still coping with the absence of Jameer Nelson. This time around, the stakes are a little higher and the rosters are both healthy.
Before last season, the Magic and Celtics had met only once in the playoffs. In 1995, the Shaq/Penny Magic knocked out a post-Bird Celtics squad in the first round. Like last season, that Orlando squad went on to win the Eastern Conference, before falling in the Finals. This makes Orlando one of the few franchises versus which Boston has a poor postseason history.
WHEN ORLANDO HAS THE BALL
WHEN ORLANDO HAS THE BALL
W RATING PACE eFG% FT/FGA oREB% TO% Tchs
Orl_off_reg 59 114.3 89.9 .536 .246 .246 .152 4.79
Orl_off_po 8 121.5 83.1 .567 .300 .259 .136 4.54
Orl_vs Bos reg 3 99.2 88.7 .465 .292 .244 .194 3.96
Bos_def_reg 50 106.9 89.4 .487 .251 .262 .166 4.76
Bos_def_po 8 102.4 89.6 .480 .277 .220 .176 4.64
Bos_vs Orl reg 1 99.2 88.7 .465 .292 .244 .194 3.96
The Magic offense has slowed its tempo in the postseason so far and has gone about decimating their first two opponents in the half-court. Shooting is way up, turnovers are down, the ball has moved just a tiny bit less. Orlando took three of four from Boston in the regular season, but neither team was very efficient on offense in those games. I'd expect a similar style in the conference finals. One thing to watch for is Orlando's turnover rate. Turnovers have been the biggest problem for the Celtics' offense the last three years, but in their head-to-head matchups this season, Boston actually came out on the plus side in turnover differential. One would expect that Rajon Rondo had a lot to do with that.
There are a lot of individual matchups that you can look at and say, "That's going to be the X-factor in this series." Rashard Lewis doesn't have as much of an advantage against Kevin Garnett as he does against other fours, but if Garnett chooses to stick to Lewis, then he won't be as available to wreak havoc as a help defender. Kendrick Perkins is a load for Dwight Howard to handle, but he's got to stay out of foul trouble because Boston will need Perkins to protect the basket. Rondo can't roam as much as he'd like to against Jameer Nelson, not with the way Nelson has played in the postseason. Mickael Pietrus and Matt Barnes need to do enough offensively to keep Paul Pierce working on the defensive end. The Ray Allen/Vince Carter matchup will be key. As good as Boston's help defense is at shutting down driving lanes, Allen should be able to stick to Carter on the outside. Carter can't become passive in this series, but even when Allen sits, Boston can throw Tony Allen at V.C. Tony Allen gave LeBron James fits in the previous round. Every position on the floor presents an interesting battle. The clear advantages would be Howard over Perkins in Orlando's favor, but Pierce would appear to have an edge over Orlando's threes.
Since Orlando doesn't operate in the mid-range, it makes Boston a tough matchup for its offense. The Celtics are the league's best team against post-ups and in this series, they'll surely pound on Howard inside, while sticking close to the three-point shooters and closing off those passing lanes. That leaves a lot of room in between, but that's not the area in which Orlando likes to operate. Boston should have the ability to make Orlando do a lot of standing around on the offensive end, in an effort to swing the ball. One possible spark for the Magic could be Nelson, who may be able to take advantage of Rondo's tendency to gamble.
As well as Orlando's offense has played in the playoffs, you still have to give Boston the edge on this end of the floor. The Magic won't be able to score as efficiently as it is accustomed, but they mustnít force the action and get careless with the ball. Boston's best offense in this series could be its defense and Orlando can't be complicit in that approach.
WHEN BOSTON HAS THE BALL
WHEN BOSTON HAS THE BALL
W RATING PACE eFG% FT/FGA oREB% TO% Tchs
Bos_off_reg 50 111.0 89.4 .522 .248 .228 .157 5.21
Bos_off_po 8 109.8 89.6 .512 .266 .293 .151 5.13
Bos_vs Orl reg 1 97.8 88.7 .450 .196 .243 .161 4.93
Orl_def_reg 59 106.0 89.9 .477 .205 .226 .133 4.67
Orl_def_po 8 100.8 83.1 .437 .252 .239 .141 4.31
Orl_vs Bos reg 3 97.8 88.7 .450 .196 .243 .161 4.93
The Celtics defense has picked up its pace in the postseason, especially when you account for the quality of their opponents. When you do the same for Boston on the offensive end, you see that they've more or less maintained their regular-season efficiency. The numbers--pace, shooting, turnovers, touches--are remarkably similar to what the Celtics did in the regular season. The effort categories have nudged up--offensive rebounding and foul-drawing. I don't think anyone would argue with the observation that the Celtics have given a greater effort the last few weeks than they did down the stretch of the regular schedule. Against Orlando, Boston really struggled on the offensive end. Shooting and foul-drawing were well beneath seasonal norms. The Magic have been the NBA's best defensive team the last two seasons, so this is no surprise. However, Boston is going to have to operate more efficiently to survive the coming series.
Kevin Garnett's ability to use his advantage in mobility and to knock down mid-range shots was crucial in Boston's win over Cleveland. Against Rashard Lewis, Garnett needs to use more of his post-up game. Of course, Dwight Howard will always be looming behind him, but the Celtics can't fall into the trap of taking too many long twos given the number of long defenders in the Magic's front court. Rondo will take his share of pullups, and Pierce will also use his step-back move to score in the 15-17 foot range. If Garnett can go to work inside and make Howard work hard to help behind Lewis and use his passing skills to find Perkins and Rasheed Wallace with his interior passing, it could go a long way towards softening up the middle of Orlando's defense.
Also, as I already alluded to, Boston has to do a much better job than Charlotte or Atlanta did in making the Magic defend the full length of the court. Orlando is a terrific defensive team in transition, but they absolutely chew up opponents in the halfcourt. Rondo needs to recognize running opportunities and take advantage of them when they manifest. He was terrific all-around in last season's playoff matchup with Orlando, but he of course didn't have to contend with Nelson in that series. He was inconsistent as a scorer then, which he can't let happen now. Rondo needs to consistently put up 20+ in this series while continuing to create opportunities for his teammates with his penetration. He also needs to take care of the ball.
Most teams are more efficient when they move the ball, even those teams that rely on one or two big scorers. However, it's a crucial part of what the Celtics do and they can't afford lapses in ball movement against Orlando. Sometimes, Boston gets a little too caught up in attacking specific matchups. They run a clear-out for Garnett on the block, or for Pierce on the elbow. Against the Magic, they have to work together, possession by possession, to keep Howard on the move and to find the guy with the best shot. No other team does a better job at breaking an offense into its component parts than Orlando--except maybe Boston--but the Celtics sometimes fall into the trap of doing that to themselves. Cant' let it happen in this series.
What makes this series so difficult to predict is the fact that Boston is playing so much differently that it was during the regular season. Well, it's not so much different as it is better. These are the Celtics we thought we going to get, the ones we thought must have been lost to age and injury. Meanwhile, Orlando has been absolutely on top of its game since the playoff bell rang. Indeed, they've looked nigh unbeatable for most of its eight playoff games. We saw Cleveland cruise through two overmatched opponents last year, before crashing onto an Orlando squad that had already sharpened its teeth in a tough series with the Celtics. Will the Magic find themselves on the other end of that scenario this time around?
My heart says yes. It says that the Magic have had it too easy, that we've been underselling the Celtics for too long, that Boston is on too much of a roll to go down now. However, my head says that even though the gap between these teams has clearly closed since the regular season ended, the gap between them was too great to be eliminated altogether. I think I wrote something just like that about Boston's series against Cleveland. However, overcoming that disparity twice in a row is too much to ask.
Magic in 6.
Data from My Synergy Sports was used to compile this report..
Follow Bradford on Twitter at @bbdoolittle.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.