From sixteen to eight and now down to four, the NBA playoffs have whittled the playoff teams down to just the championship contenders. The expected (Lakers, Magic, Cavs…er nevermind on the Cavs) and the unexpected (Suns, Celtics) have gotten us to a Conference Finals stage that may be one of the most entertaining that we’ve had in years.
In the Eastern Conference, the Magic blitzed through the first two rounds to reach the Conference Finals. Their opponent in the Celtics played a much tougher match-up in Cleveland than Orlando faced in the first two rounds combined, so who has the advantage?
Out West, the Lakers were expected to make their third consecutive Conference Finals, so this is definitely not where they expect the road to end. The Suns were a squad that almost nobody picked to go this far and are a confident group. So who is the favorite, the Lakers with their length or the run-and-gun Suns?
So what are we going to see in the Finals? A 2009 rematch (Lakers-Magic) or a 2008 rematch (Lakers-Celtics)? Or will the Suns shock the basketball world and get to the Finals? Let’s make some picks, starting with the Eastern Conference today and the Western Conference tomorrow.
Orlando Magic vs. Boston Celtics –
In a rematch of a second round pairing last season, the Magic and Celtics face off for a spot in the NBA Finals. If last season’s series gives us any type of foreshadowing, then this one will be long and drawn out. Last year, the Celtics jumped out to a 3-2 series lead before the Magic fought back to claim the series in seven games to advance to the Conference Finals.
Although this year provides a couple of key differences that could ultimately decide the outcome of the series. Both rosters have made what they consider to be upgrades to get them to the Promised Land, and how those additions work will play a huge role in which team goes to the Finals.
In Orlando, the Magic lost glue-guy/crunch-time scorer/leading play-maker Hedo Turkoglu to Toronto via free agency after being dominated by Kobe Bryant in the Finals, which left them with two glaring weaknesses; a two-guard capable of scoring/defending and a starting small forward. To answer those issues, the Magic went to free agency and the trade market. They signed Matt Barnes to take on the small-forward role and he has played well, giving the Magic a defensive ferocity they were lacking last season in the Finals. The Magic knew they had a rugged defender when the Lakers came to Orlando in the regular season and Barnes would not be punked by Kobe.
The other move they made was to bring in high-priced (overpaid?) shooting guard Vince Carter, a player who’s name was recognizable and who the Magic felt would put them over the top when teamed up with Dwight Howard inside. Orlando sacrificed a promising young player in Courtney Lee, but felt the trade would help them come playoff time. After an up-and-down regular season, Carter has provided the Magic with a strong scoring presence this postseason, especially in times when Howard has been slowed by foul trouble.
Boston, meanwhile, went out and made one major move in the offseason, bringing in big man Rasheed Wallace to provide length and stretch the floor with his three-point shooting. While Wallace spent most of the regular season proving to be possibly the biggest Free Agent bust of the year, he has had a few big games in this postseason to lead the Celtics’ bench.
Despite the roster turnover, what it ultimately boils down to is which stars will step up when they are needed the most. Boston will not be able to survive Paul Pierce having a couple of no-shows this series; he needs to play like he did in Game 1 (22 points, 13 in the key third quarter) if Boston is going to get back to the Finals. The same can be said for Carter, who needs to step up and play aggressively if the Magic are going to score on the Celtics’ solid defense.
A lot of expectations and focus will righfully be placed on Rajon Rondo, but his offense will not be as important as his defense this series. Rondo was the main scoring option against Cleveland; however, what the Celtics will need against the Magic is for Rondo to be distributing the ball and locking down his man. If he can contain Jameer Nelson then the Magic will struggle to score. Nelson was the catalyst behind Orlando’s sweep of Charlotte and provided great ball-distribution against Atlanta. If he continues to play at the All-Star level he’s displayed the first two rounds, the Magic have to be favored in this series.
The ageless Ray Allen could prove to be huge in this series; with Orlando relying strongly on their three-point shooting and using that advantage to power their series sweeps thus far, Allen could be the great equalizer. Through two rounds and one game, Allen has made 33 three-pointers, and if his outside shot is on it counters Orlando’s sharp-shooters. For the Magic to win, they will need their outside shooters to show the touch they had in the first two rounds. In the Game 1 loss, Orlando shot just 3-22 from the land of plenty, a number that will not cut it the rest of this series. Rashard Lewis, Mikael Pietrus, Matt Barnes, and JJ Redick (no seriously, JJ Redick) will have to hit shots for the Magic to advance. If they don’t, Boston will be able to pack it inside against Howard and disrupt his entire game.
Speaking of Howard, he is a part of what will be the biggest match-up of the series and one that could decide the outcome. The Celtics are a long, deep, physical team inside who have plenty of fouls to use on Howard. With Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis, and Wallace, Boston can throw four different bigs at Howard. If Game 1 was any indicator, this will expose the fact that Howard doesn’t really have a post game (3-10 shooting), and is turnover-prone (7 giveaways) when under pressure. While Howard can combat the Celtics aggression by beating his man down court and getting deep position in the post, Boston will not hesitate to foul Howard and foul him hard. If Howard wants to give himself a chance to put the ball in the basket, he needs to knock down his free throws to discourage Boston from putting him on the line every chance they get.
Jameer Nelson (Orlando) vs. Rajon Rondo (Boston) –
While Nelson has put up solid scoring numbers (20.4 points), his assist numbers are low for someone with such potent offensive weapons around him (4.9 assists). Rondo on the other hand has played the kind of all-around game you need from your star this postseason (16.9 points, 10.8 assists, 6.1 rebounds). The difference in this match-up is who will be able to stop the other; one is All-Defensive First Team, the other is at most passable on defense. Advantage: Celtics
Vince Carter (Orlando) vs. Ray Allen (Boston) –
Carter was the big acquisition for the Magic and is their best scoring option when Dwight Howard isn’t able to get it done inside. Allen has played consistently well this postseason and is a more than capable defender. They probably won’t match up much this series, with Carter incapable of running through screen after screen to keep up with Allen, but how they show up on offense each night will be key to their team’s success. While Allen is consistent, when Carter is on he can get to the rim and be a big-time scorer. Advantage: Push
Matt Barnes (Orlando) vs. Paul Pierce (Boston) –
Barnes has been a big surprise for the Magic this season, providing solid individual defense and some timely buckets along the way. His toughness has allowed the Magic to not be pushed around against more physical teams and could prove important this round. Pierce, the 2008 Finals MVP (I just threw up in my mouth) is the wild-card for Boston. If his scoring is on, the Celtics will have a clear advantage, especially with the defense-less Carter guarding him. Advantage: Celtics
Rashard Lewis (Orlando) vs. Kevin Garnett (Boston) –
This could be the key individual match-up of the series. Lewis is a jack-of-all-trades who can help the Magic from inside or out. His outside touch will be huge; if Lewis is hitting shots consistently, Garnett has no choice but to go out to the perimeter and guard him, opening things up for Dwight Howard in the paint. Garnett, meanwhile, has played at a much higher level this postseason than he did during the regular season, silencing many people who thought he was finished. While Garnett could have one or two big games this series, Lewis is much more important to Orlando’s success. Advantage: Magic
Dwight Howard (Orlando) vs. Kendrick Perkins (Boston) –
As Dwight Howard goes, so go the Magic. If Howard is able to be successful inside and impose his will offensively and defensively, the Magic are far and away the favorites in this series. Howard’s scoring opens up the wings for his shooters, and his defensive presence prevents Rondo from getting into the paint and dissecting Orlando. Perkins is a tough defender who will occasionally get some easy buckets when Howard helps, but really he is only there to use his six fouls and put Superman on the line. Advantage: Magic
JJ Redick/Marcin Gortat/Mikael Pietrus (Orlando) vs. Rasheed Wallace/Tony Allen/Glen Davis (Celtics) –
As well as the Boston bench played last round, they lack the game-changers that the Magic bring off the bench. Pietrus can score 20 on any given night if his shot is on, and Gortat is a more than serviceable big man who can be just as physical as Boston inside. Advantage: Magic
Stan Van Gundy (Magic) vs. Doc Rivers (Boston) –
The emotional, never satisfied Van Gundy uses a sense of urgency to push his players at all times. Rivers is a calm, collected coach who realizes his team is a group of veterans and preaches teamwork above anything else as the key to success. Advantage: Celtics
Since the NBA season began and even heading into the postseason, I have been saying the Magic would get back to the NBA Finals and take on the Lakers. As one friend told me, a real expert doesn’t go back on his picks. I disagree; I think a real expert actually analyzes more than the obvious with teams, breaking down individual match-ups, and different variables that can sway the outcome of a series.
While the Magic started this postseason out 8-0, they beat teams like Charlotte and Atlanta – not exactly squads that will push you around. The Celtics have gotten here by taking out the two biggest stars in the East (Dwyane Wade and LeBron James) and knocking out the Cavs, who are easily the best team eliminated so far this postseason.
Orlando has a height advantage inside with Howard, but the biggest key to this series will be the Celtics physicality. Howard is going to be hammered every time he touches the ball, and I am not confident he will be able to knock down his free throws consistently enough to deter the Celtics defensive game plan. Add that to the fact that Vince Carter is the type of player who just needs to be knocked on his back one time to prevent him from going to the hole anymore, and you have the kind of finesse that will not be enough to knock out Boston, a team playing with more confidence than anyone after taking out Lebron and Co. last round.
Boston has enough talent, physicality, and length to take out the defending Eastern Conference champs.
Celtics in 6 games