The C’s get things started in Florida today, opening up game 1 of the Conference Finals against the defending Eastern Conference Champions. The Magic, fresh off of two series sweeps, will be well rested and very well prepared for their rivals, as they try to continue their 8 game postseason winning streak and take early command of this series.
Meanwhile the C’s come in battle tested underdogs, having taken down the regular season champs with surprising ease and also looking for revenge after falling to the Magic in the 2nd round last year. The Magic took the season series 3-1 this year as well, proving themselves as worthy adversaries to the Green. A few storylines to watch out for today, before we get to my extended preview:
* The health of Kendrick Perkins and how is affects his defense on Dwight Howard
* The decision of Stan Van Gundy to have Matt Barnes guard Ray Allen. Plus, Barnes has been battling a stiff back as well so will be interesting to see if he can keep up with Ray sprinting through picks all over the perimeter.
You guys know the deal. Tell us what your seeing out there. Are the Magic rusty? Whose getting the best of the head to head matchups? Has Stan Van Gundy said something to tick you off yet? A full preview from me of what to watch for throughout the series along with a prediction, after the jump
Let’s breakdown a few things to watch for in this series:
A Chink In The Magic Armor: Defending the 3
For the most part, the Magic are essentially an identical team, by the numbers, to last year’s finals squad. They upgraded their offense a bit with Vince Carter, causing a 2 point spike in their offensive rating this year, but they also took a slight step back on the defensive end. The reason? 3 point shooting defense.
Last year, the Magic were the cream of the crop in this category for the league, allowing their opponents to shoot just 34.2 percent from downtown, good for 2nd in the league. This season? 36.3 percent, landing them in 21st in 3pt FG defense. Now for a good defensive team, that’s a dramatic dropoff.
Your guess for it is as good as mine, but I’m guessing the additions of Vince Carter and Matt Barnes in place of Courtney Lee and Hedo Turkoglu have something to do with it. Lee was the best perimeter defender Orlando had, and Turkoglu could bother a lot of shots on the perimeter with his length.
In any case, this is clearly Orlando’s biggest defensive weakness and one the C’s should look to take advantage of. Look for Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and even Michael Finley to bomb away early and often in his series from deep.
* Jameer Nelson can be stopped
First off, let’s give the guy some credit. He’s playing terrific basketball and has been absolutely on fire shooting the rock for the past two months. This started in April when he put up 50 percent shooting from the field, along with a crazy 51 percent from downtown.
The carnage continued through his first two playoff series when he put up these beautiful numbers*
FG: 51.9 %
3PT: 40 %
It’s no wonder this team only needed 8 games to advance with numbers like that. Those are HUGE upgrades on his season numbers, especially in FG percentage (44.9%) and points per game (12.6). Wait a second though. There was an asterik attached to those numbers up there. Let’s check that out:
* Numbers came against Raymond Felton and the corpse known formerly known as Mike Bibby.
Felton is no slouch on defense, but he’s nothing special either. Meanwhile, Bibby has been a complete liability for a couple of years now, especially on the defensive end. So while Nelson has taken care of business this postseason thus far, he hasn’t exactly gone up against elite competition. Luckily, the C’s have one of those guys in Rajon Rondo, who has massacred Carlos Arroyo and Mo Williams in their head to head matchups thus far on both ends of the floor.
Now, a quick investigation of Nelson will tell you that yes, he is much better than both of those opponents. However, he has had his struggles against the C’s offensively the last few years. A look at the numbers
09-10 vs. Boston: 11.7 PPG, 41.9% FG, 12.5% 3pt, 3.3 TO. (3 games)
08-09: 37.5% FG, 16.7% 3pt FG (1 game)
07-08: 38.9% FG, 0% 3pt FG (2 games)
Not exactly setting the world on fire there Jameer. Now a lot of point guards struggle against the C’s offensively, so why is this such a big deal for Nelson?
The numbers tell us that the key to slowing Orlando down offensively, is slowing Nelson down. In the Magic’s losses this year Nelson’s FG percentages are WAY down from his season numbers. 42% FG, 3 points down from his season average, and the drop is even more glaring from downtown, where the drop is 10 points to 28 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
Combine those numbers with Nelson’s career numbers against Rondo and I like the C’s chances of limiting this guy offensively. That’s even without getting to Nelson’s defense, which is average, at best. The main worry defensively for the C’s though, won’t be Nelson, since I expect Rondo to take care of him. Instead it will be two other guys:
Rashard Lewis and Michael Pietrus are Celtic Killers
Before we get to these guys and the C’s, let’s just realize how filthy these guys have been through this postseason on the offensive end. If you thought Nelson’s numbers were impressive, check this out:
Lewis: 54% FG, 46.2% 3pt
Pietrus: 46% FG, 51.2% 3pt
Both guys just did whatever they wanted against ATL and Charlotte in those sweeps. The bad news about all of this? Each of them have been EVEN better against Boston this year. No really, they have.
Let’s start with Pietrus. All C’s fans became very familiar with this Frenchman last year when he came into Boston and torched the C’s from downtown throughout that 7 game slugfest like May. This year against the C’s, the sharpshooting got even better.
(4 games) FG: 55%, 3pt (wait for it…) 58.3%!!!!
Those numbers are embarrassing if you are a C’s fan. The guy must be stopped. However, there is some good news in all of this. The C’s now have a not so secret weapon to unleash on Pietrus, in the form of Tony Allen. You see, TA wasn’t in a prominent member of the rotation in the C’s 3 losses to Orlando this year.
In the one game he did play major minutes in against the Magic, on Christmas day, the C’s won and were actually able to contain Pietrus, (3 of 7 shooting, 1 of 4 from deep). Coincidence? I say no.
Now that TA is playing with confidence, it’s allowed him to play some of the best ball of his career in a supporting role this postseason. And you can bet Tom Thibeadou has been whispering sweet nothings to TA the past two days about his job for this series. Shut down Pietrus. I trust TA to do it. Do you?
Back to Lewis though. He’s been just as much of a Celtics nemesis these past couple years as Pietrus. 18 points, 6 boards, along with 47 percent 3 point shooting is all the Magic got out of Lewis in head to head matchups with Boston this year, as Lewis feasted on a weakened and far less mobile Kevin Garnett all over the floor. He even drove past KG for a game clinching layup in Orlando back in February to complete a Magic comeback W against the C’s.
Where do we stand now with Lewis? Well there’s good news again in my estimation and that is clearly the health of Kevin Garnett. He’s playing and moving around better than he has all year.
Again, not well enough to think he’s going to be able to shut down Lewis entirely, since he’s not another over the hill stretch 4 a la Antawn Jamison. However, if KG can contain Lewis and get out on the perimeter enough to at least bother his 3 ball, that’s all the C’s can ask for.
Stopping the trio of Lewis-Nelson-Pietrus is so crucial in my book since those are the deadliest shooters on this squad for this postseason. If you get those guys out of their rhythm, then the Magic’s offense suddenly becomes pretty one dimensional with a lack of guys who can create their own shot.
Make Vince Carter the focal point of Orlando’s offense
Of course, there’s one guy on this squad who thinks he can still create his own offense, and that’s the pivotal player I want to see shooting as much as possible this series, one Vince Carter. His production has improved as the season has gone along, but he’s still a guy that I would fear the least if I’m a Boston Celtic.
He’s shot only 38% against Boston this year and is averaging 18 shots a game against them as well. With Carter as a go to guy, Orlando’s offense becomes stagnant and that’s exactly what Doc Rivers wants to see. Look for a redux performance of Jamison’s offensive stinker from last round from another guy in Carter that has a questionable postseason resume and a history of not rising to the occasion.
Before we get to my prediction, a quick word on the Howard-Perkins matchup. Many people may be wondering why I’ve glossed over it to this point. Well, in essence Howard really isn’t a pivotal part of the Magic offense, simply because they don’t go to him enough to make him a 30 point threat.
He’ll get his looks early, and try to establish himself against Perkins down low, but for better or worse, the team largely goes away from him when it matters.
Howard clearly makes his presence felt in other ways, on the offensive glass and obviously all over the defensive end, but the C’s gameplan won’t be centered around stopping Howard, not on the offensive end.
Much like LeBron couldn’t beat the C’s alone, Howard isn’t capable of doing it himself either. That’s why all the attention has to be paid to Orlando’s supporting cast, which is so much better than Cleveland’s.
Orlando is a clear favorite to win this series as Zach noted earlier today, and by the numbers it makes sense. Here’s the thing I don’t get though.
Wasn’t it just one round ago, where the “numbers” said that the Cavs should roll through Boston. Haven’t we learned from our mistakes here people? Yes, the numbers don’t lie, but when it comes to this Boston Celtic team, they actually kind of do.
This team openly admits that they took their foot off the gas for large sections of this season. So while their season numbers aren’t entirely irreverent, they have to be taken with a very large grain of salt.
With this taken into consideration, it’s very hard for me not to like the C’s in this 7 game affair. They’ve got the big man to cover Superman, and have ample backup in Big Baby and Sheed to give fouls. You’ve got a healthy squad in Boston, a confident bunch that is firing on all cylinders, and quite honestly matchup extremely well with Orlando. This will be a tougher series than Cleveland but the result remains the same.
Celtics in 6.