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May 24, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
Killer Instinct

by Bradford Doolittle

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at Boston 94, Magic 71 (Celtics lead 3-0)

So much for drama. With no particular dog in the race, I was counting on a spirited effort by the Orlando Magic on Saturday, similar to what we saw from the Suns on Sunday. I figured that after three second-round sweeps, we NBA fans had earned at least that much. Oh well.

The Celtics jumped on the Magic's throat right from the outset and never let up, sinking Orlando 94-71 and extending their lead in the Eastern Conference Finals to 3-0, a margin which has proven to be 100 percent insurmountable thus far in NBA annals. If there is any solace to be offered to our fans in Orlando, it's that in sports, there is generally a first time for everything. Yeah, it's not much to cling to.

Tonight's game in Boston will be the 35th game played out of the Eastern Conference bracket this spring. One would expect the Celtics to close out the series. All the markers on their side--home-court advantage, a dispiriting 3-0 lead, etc. If so, that would mark the fewest games a conference has needed to determine its Finals entrant since the NBA went to best-of-seven first-round series in 2003. In 2007, 36 games were played to crown the Cavaliers as the East champ. If the Lakers win the next two against Phoenix, the West will have burned through 37 contests and there remains a pretty good chance that the Finals matchup will be set with the fewest overall number of games under this playoff format. So if you really like playoff basketball--and isn't that why we're all here?--the NBA owes us one king-hell championship series.

While the first two games of the series at Orlando were close into the final minutes, Saturday's game was like an exaggerated continuation of what we saw on the Magic's home floor without the boost Stan Van Gundy's group got from playing in the friendly confines of Amway Arena. The sports clichés in question were twofold. Either the Celtics would display the ruthless conviction of a shark going in for the kill, or the Magic would fight off their attackers like a cornered animal. Score one for killer instinct.

There seemed to be a couple of subtle adjustments on Van Gundy's part to begin the game. Matt Barnes was guarding Paul Pierce, whose big series has done a lot for the defensive reputation of LeBron James, who shut down Pierce in the second round. It didn't really help. Pierce scored eight points in the first quarter before taking a secondary role in the Celtics' all-hands-on-deck attack after that. The move also left Vince Carter to chase around Ray Allen and Allen scored seven points in the opening frame, on the way to his best performance of the series. Van Gundy also ran a couple of post-ups for Rashard Lewis, which wasn't bad idea, but did little to get Lewis going. Lewis scored four points on 12 possessions in the game, an unhappy recurrence of the ineptitude he's displayed in the series. You have to credit Van Gundy for trying, but the adjustments didn't really help.

After Boston's quick start, Orlando buckled down on defense and closed an early 7-0 deficit to 7-6 on a Jameer Nelson jumper. What followed encapsulates how this series has played out. Rather than consolidating its positive strides, the Magic became passive and the Celtics held Orlando without a point for nearly five minutes. Boston scored 14 points during that span, pushing out to a 21-6 lead. Orlando's attacked was mired in turnovers and contested jumpers, while the Celtics seemed to be one step ahead on defense, getting to Orlando's spots on offense before the Magic did. That sequence was pretty much all she wrote. The Magic never really threatened again, a whimpering response to a major challenge by a team that looked so dominant entering the series.

There was one halfcourt set that really illustrated how out of sorts Boston has rendered Orlando on the offensive end. Trying to create something, Vince Carter drove from the left elbow. Only problem was that Dwight Howard was posted on the left block. Carter ran into him and then sort of handed him the ball, as if he were saying, "Here, you take it." Because of the complete lack of flow and spacing, Howard was double-teamed upon receiving the hand-off and held the ball looking for anyone to kick the ball to. He managed to skip it out to the weakside wing, who wasn't really open and another swing pass ended up in the hands of Nelson right as the shot clock was winding to zero. Nelson hardly caught the ball before he flicked a shot at the basket. Boston sealed the defensive board, and that was that.

I clung to the thought that Orlando would make a serious run at some point. The Magic have been too good over the last couple of months to go down like this, but the run never came. I thought maybe it would come at the beginning of the second quarter when the Celtics had their frontliners on the bench. Instead, Boston pushed a 15-point lead to as high as 24. Eventually, in the second half, the lead would go over 30. I made notes to myself, which even as I made them, I knew it wouldn't make any difference: Where's Ryan Anderson? Perhaps Pietrus should go more off the dribble? Anderson did play some--ineffectively--and Pietrus did get more aggressive with his offense. But, really, we're talking about polishing the doorknobs on the Titanic.

There was a point when it just became apparent that Boston had broken Orlando's will. A lot was made of the play Rajon Rondo made when he dove to the floor to take a loose ball away from Jason Williams, then turned it into a layup. That was certainly illustrative. However, the play that stood out for me was also in the second quarter, when Orlando got Boston to run down the shot clock and settle for a jumper, which missed. Rondo charged the lane, tipped out the rebound. Glen Davis chased down the errant ball and, falling out of bounds, saved it to Ray Allen with a fresh shot clock. Boston then set up, and went about executing its offense. Poise and second effort.

Orlando finished with three offensive rebounds in 39 chances and committed 17 turnovers to Boston's eight. Howard was 3-of-10, with seven points in 39:24 on the floor, and one offensive board. Carter burned through 16 possessions to get his 15 points. Boston outscored Orlando 34-22 in the paint--28-8 in the first half. It was just a thorough blood-letting. The number that keeps jumping out at me as best illustrating how well Boston has disrupted Orlando's offense is the fact that the Magic had just 10 assists in Game 3. Orlando finished with 3.26 touches per minute, which is nearly 50 percent below the Magic's season average.

As the result of Game 3 became evident, there was a lot of comparing going on between Boston's series against Orlando and the one against Cleveland. Have the Magic quit? Did the Cavaliers quit? Should we be disappointed in those teams? Well, of course you're disappointed if you either are a fan of one of those teams or just like to see dramatic postseason series. However, Boston has now won six games in a row against the two top regular-season teams in the NBA this season. If you're looking for a common denominator between the series, it's this: The Celtics. Boston is playing championship basketball.

ORL           Pace  oRTG  eFG% oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  23   51.5  .265  .077  .176  .258  3.33
Second Quarter 20  107.8  .714  .000  .143  .245  3.20
Third Quarter  20   65.6  .289  .167  .105  .151  3.45
Fourth Quarter 20  119.3  .533  .000  .533  .149  3.06
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     44   77.8  .468  .053  .161  .252  3.27
SECOND HALF    40   92.6  .397  .100  .294  .150  3.25
------------------------------------------------------
GAME 3         84   84.9  .431  .077  .231  .203  3.26
------------------------------------------------------
GAME 2         88  104.1  .444  .256  .408  .158  4.67
GAME 1         89   98.6  .448  .326  .247  .202  3.68
SERIES         87   96.1  .441  .226  .296  .189  3.87
SEASON         90  114.3  .536  .246  .246  .152  4.79
======================================================
BOS           Pace  oRTG  eFG% oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  23  115.9  .591  .222  .045  .129  5.66
Second Quarter 20  117.6  .476  .182  .190  .049  5.70
Third Quarter  20  121.1  .471  .100  .471  .000  5.08
Fourth Quarter 20   94.4  .462  .200  .538  .248  3.70
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     44  116.7  .535  .200  .116  .092  5.68
SECOND HALF    40  107.7  .467  .143  .500  .125  4.33
------------------------------------------------------
GAME 3         84  112.4  .507  .175  .274  .108  5.03
------------------------------------------------------
GAME 2         88  107.5  .493  .257  .297  .170  4.81
GAME 1         89  103.1  .486  .189  .270  .179  4.92
SERIES         87  107.6  .495  .205  .281  .152  4.92
REG. SEASON    89  111.0  .522  .228  .248  .157  5.21
======================================================

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.

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