Many fans in Boston (myself included) have failed to see this Magic team as a legitimate threat to a healthy Celtic roster once May rolls around. This skepticism of a squad with the 4th best record in the league has come with seemingly ample reason, as the Celtics have cruised to victories against Orlando in their first two meetings this year. The Magic held off a Boston comeback to steal a win in the Garden a couple weeks back, but that was against a Rondo and KG less team so we might as well throw that win out the window in the large scheme of things.
Personally though I have been cynical of this team becoming a serious obstacle for the C’s ever since they arrived as an elite eastern conference team last year. Sure, I felt like Orlando could match up well with a lot of teams in the league, Boston just wasn’t one of them. When you had KG and Perk defending the basket against Dwight Howard, his numbers have been kept under control. Combine that fact with C’s starting unit ability to rotate well and play great team defense, I felt like Orlando’s potent shooters could be neutralized on most nights.
Their 2nd round exit to Detroit last year appeared to validate my skepticism but this is a new year and although the Magic hasn’t changed much personnel-wise, they are clearly playing a lot better this year. After opening the year with two losses, they went 34-8 over the next three months, quietly lurking behind Cleveland and Boston for the top spot in the east. I took notice of this run but remained suspicious of the record especially after the C’s easily dispatched them in two early season meetings. These wins seemed to reaffirm my thoughts that the Magic were overachieving and would fall back closer to the rest of the eastern conference pack in due time.
Almost all observers agreed any chance the Magic had at making a meaningful playoff run came to an end once Jameer Nelson went down with a season ending shoulder injury in February. Expectedly, the Magic fell back to earth somewhat in February without their floor general, going 7-5 in their initial run without him. Reinforcements were brought to town in the form of Rafer Alston and Tyron Lue but the doubts about the team’s prospects to make a run against Boston and Cleveland remained.
Stan Van Gundy has shown his coaching chops though recently in getting this team to regroup to the tune of a 9-2 March. Their only setbacks came in the form of four point road losses against Cleveland and Detroit (a team that continues to give the Magic fits) This run has once again left Orlando on the doorstep of the 2nd seed in the East and left Celtics fans like myself posing some questions: What gives?
I crunched some numbers from Basketball-Reference and got some intriguing results. Let’s take a look:
Here are the percentages for each year, along with the league ranks.
FG% eFG% 3pt% PPG ORtg
2007-08 .474 (5) .537 (2) .386 (4) 104.5 (4) 111.3 (7)
2008-09 .461 (8) .526 (3) .386 (3) 102.3 (8) 110.0 (7)
To sum it up, the Magic clearly still have an elite offensive unit, but they are certainly not responsible to for the team’s improvement in record, as most of their offensive numbers remain constant or slightly down from last year. This can mean only one thing….
It’s the defense, stupid. Celtics fans know as well as anyone that tough D is the key ingredient for any team hoping to make noise in the playoffs. And after dissecting the numbers from last year, it is clear Stan Van Gundy has his team making a fuller commitment in that department this year. Let’s compare each squad’s opponent’s averages along with their league ranks.
FG% eFG% 3pt% PPG DRtg
2007-08 .446 (8) .484 (6) .358 (13) 99.0 (11) 105.5 (6)
2008-09 .433 (3) .465 (1) .340 (2) 95.0 (8) 102.1 (2)
Those are some impressive defensive numbers that should put Celtic fans on notice as they finished ahead of Boston in many of those defensive categories. Now the devil’s advocate would say these numbers must be taken with a grain a salt to a degree given the absence of Jameer Nelson and addition of Rafer Alston as starting PG. I take a look at this after the jump
The team as I noted had adjustment issues after the initial switch, but their defense has really settled in with Alston during their 9-2 run in March. They have given up 93.5 points/game for the month, an improvement over their season average. Staying with that improvement theme, they have limited their opponents to 42% FG shooting and 32% 3 point shooting in those last 11 games as well. So while they probably do miss Nelson a great deal, his absence is not showing too much on the defensive end.
Looking at these numbers it is hard to doubt the legitimacy of this Orlando team any longer. Do they pose a real threat to the Celtics come May? Absolutely. Do I still think the Celtics will beat them in a 7 game series? Yes. However, I would no longer consider it a shocker if they got past the C’s. To beat the Celts (or any contender) in the playoffs, you need to show a commitment to D and the Magic have done exactly that this year. So watch out NBA, the Magic are coming to play on both ends of the floor.