Brian Robb: The Magic for obvious reasons. Beyond the injury and coaching drama they are going through, I don’t think Orlando would necessarily be an easy out, I’m just more worried about the Hawks talent. They have a core that has played together for five years now, defends well, and has shown they can be competitive in the postseason. With Boston looking for an easy out in the first round to preserve energy for later rounds, Orlando is the better candidate to fall quickly.
Ryan DeGama: I think the Celtics will beat either team but given a choice, I’ll take the Hawks because Kevin Garnett can’t body up Dwight Howard (he’s game but he gives ground and it wears him out) and Greg Stiemsma might foul out against Howard in two minutes. Of course, this assumes that Howard will actually be 1) available for the playoffs and 2) more focused on playing than sabotaging Stan Van Gundy.
Chris Forsberg: The Magic are a hot mess and are actually giving Dwight Howard the Jermaine O’Neal treatment (“If we get him back, obviously it would be a huge bonus, but we’re not expecting that at this point,” coach Stan Van Gundy said Wednesday). The Celtics match up incredibly well with Orlando regardless of whether D12 plays or not and — Tuesday’s effort in New York aside — Boston excels at limiting the 3-point shot. Alas, it sure looks like they’re going to get the Hawks, who have the inside track on home-court advantage. Regardless, the Celtics will not be overwhelmed by anyone in the East given their playoff experience and are a better team than Atlanta when healthy.
Hayes Davenport: It may have not been this obvious when this question was written, but today it’s clearly the Magic. Either his back or his vague personality deficiencies is keeping Dwight Howard out of the playoffs. The team feels like it could conceivably just opt out of the first round. Plus Boston faced them last night without Rondo, gave up 27 points to Glen Davis and got outrebounded 43-29, and still won.
Michael Pina: It’s difficult to take anything away from last night’s victory, but I still think Orlando would be the easier foe. Dwight Howard’s back is an obvious question mark, and even when he’s healthy the Celtics seem to have his number. Given the ridiculously difficult off-the-court drama they’ve had to put up with all season long, if there’s one team you’d expect to fizzle out in the first round of this year’s playoffs, it’d be the Magic.
Robb: It will depend on the game, but I say both. As much as it’s crazy to think, I do see some scenarios where it makes sense (in terms of floor spacing) to have Bradley and Allen out there in late-game situations and keep Rondo on the bench. Keep in mind, I see this largely in end of game spots where Boston needs a basket, but otherwise I think just one of them will see the floor and their performance in said game will dictate who Doc goes with. The great thing now though is that Doc has options at crunch time, something we haven’t been able to say for years.
DeGama: I think we’ll see variations from Doc depending on the opposition. There’s an argument to be made for offensive/defensive switching, but you can comfortably leave Bradley out there on offense to spread the floor, to slash and finish, and even to create a little bit off the dribble if all else breaks down. If anything, I think Doc will look to spell Allen on defense out of timeouts, which should really help the perimeter defense.
Forsberg: Depends on the game situation. I like the idea of having Bradley out there defensively if the Celtics have a lead, but, in the end, you probably err on the side of experience, which would keep Allen in the mix if he’s healthy. The bottom line is that it’s good for coach Doc Rivers to simply have options, being able to mix and match Allen, Bradley, and Pietrus based on the size of the opposing backcourt and Boston’s need for either offense or defense.
Davenport: Both. Easily the best thing about choosing between Bradley and Allen is situational flexibility. I don’t think it comes down to whether or not Boston is protecting a lead–either way, they’ll need to score and stop the other team from scoring. I think it’s more about what’s been working in the first 42 minutes of the game.
Pina: Presetting a crunch time lineup is a dangerous thing. Several variables—such as how both are playing, what type of lineup they’re going up against, and how fast the game’s being played—would have to be taken into account. Picking one is too difficult. If I had to choose, I’d put Pierce at the four, Garnett at the five, and play Rondo, Bradley, and Allen all at the same time.
Robb: Rondo. He’s a warrior but you can tell he takes it to another level when he is fully healthy, something he has done over the past couple months. Now though, the bumps and bruises are beginning to add up after some hard falls, (including that lingering wrist injury). I think this team still stands a puncher’s chance without Ray Allen, but if Rondo is hobbled, then you can count them out.
DeGama: Right now, I think Allen is the major concern because the trajectory of his “recovery” is creepily similar to Kevin Garnett in 2009 and Shaq last season. It starts with the assumption that the player will return, lingers through a bunch of DNPs which are contextualized with reassuring comments that the player is on the path to recovery and will be available for the playoffs. And then come the overt public admissions that the player may not return at all, or is not responding to treatment.
Forsberg: Allen, by a landslide. Rondo played last year with a dislocated elbow, so a bruised tailbone won’t detour him, while Pietrus has battled these knee flares throughout the condensed season. But Allen just can’t stay on the court and the number of false starts after going through shootarounds is highly concerning. The fact that he needed a cortisone shot to get through five games is even more troubling. Sounds like the ankle just isn’t responding and, while he swears the MRI showed no structural damage, this is slowly entering Shaq-like territory for whether he’s going to be able to get back — and stay back — on the floor in the postseason.
Davenport: Rondo’s back. One of the commenters, who went to the Knicks game and describe Rondo “virtually trembling” with back spasms after he fell, is responsible for my concern. Not only is he the most valuable of all the injured players, I’m pretty concerned that his injury is the worst.
Pina: After reading this tweet from Ken Berger, there’s no doubt that Ray’s ankles are the only thing about this team keeping me up at night. It’d be difficult to pick another part of his body that would cause an equal amount of concern. Given the amount of running Ray does, coming off screens, in transition, defending opposing shooting guards, he NEEDS his ankles for just about everything related to that shot to be successful. He isn’t the same guy if they aren’t 100%.
Robb: Outside of the Atlanta game Friday night, I’d keep them at a minimum. Only 20-25 minutes for Garnett, and no more than 30 for the rest of the starters in any given contest. Giving guys multiple nights off shouldn’t be ruled out either. The taxing April stretch was very successful, but Doc had his veterans on the floor far longer than he had hoped to most nights, thanks to all the injuries. With the division title clinch, the extra week of flexibility and rest should start now.
DeGama: Rest everybody. Punt games. Give JaJuan Johnson 25 shots. Any and all of these are fine with me. Nobody wants to see this Celtics team if they’re healthy but any team could beat them if they’re not.
Forsberg: Even though they will likely be without Rondo, Pietrus, and Allen again in Atlanta, the Celtics could push hard for one final game (especially with the home-court issue), then it seems prudent to downshift in the final week. Sure, you can still roll Rondo, Pietrus and Allen out there to shake some rust, but do it with a heavy dose of the junior varsity against both Milwaukee and Miami (there’s absolutely no reason to engage in a war with the Heat with the playoffs beginning four days later and the seedings set).
Davenport: Based on the potential favorability of the early-round matchups, I don’t care if Rondo, Pierce, Allen or Garnett see the floor for the next three games. They can play themselves back into rhythm in Game 1 of the first round. Sorry to anyone who spent 500 dollars on tickets to the Heat game Tuesday, but now you know not to invest in the last week of the season.
Pina: Last week I wrote that the Celtics should go all out in an attempt to catch Indiana, grab the three seed, and avoid Chicago’s side of the bracket. But after the Pacers reeled off six straight wins, that thought crumbled. Boston has the four seed as a lock, and even though home court isn’t, they have three major contributors who’re in their mid-30s and know how to win playoff games on the road. There’d be nothing wrong with giving them some rest down the stretch.
Robb: Hopefully more than 20 minutes a game, if he can stay out of foul trouble for that long. A defensive presence at the basket is what the rookie should provide and that will be huge in the postseason as it was something Boston lacked last year. As long as the Steimer doesn’t regress on the offensive end (he’s been hesitant the past couple games now) the C’s will do well in keeping him out there for extended stretches for his shot-blocking abilities and to keep Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett as fresh as possible.
DeGama: The Celtics have been doing some on-court advocacy for Stiemsma with the officials and trying to make him appear less foul prone. If he’s smart and officiated with some latitude, he could be a legitimate deterrent against penetration and a protector of the rim, two recurrent problems for the Celtics defense all season. Bradley’s had his national coming out party. Stiemer could be next.
Forsberg: On a nightly basis you can probably expect say 12 minutes, 5 fouls, and a couple blocks. That’s about all you need. Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass will likely stretch their minutes out a bit, but Stiemsma will still fetch Garnett early and just has to keep the focus on the defensive end when he’s on the floor. Rivers will surely encourage him to protect the rim and get his money’s worth with five hard fouls to give in limited court time.
Davenport: Exactly what they need. Greg’s developed into an utterly solid defensive backup center. Length was a crisis for this team from the beginning of the season, and we may not even be having playoffs discussions without Stiemsma emerging to spell Garnett and cover up the other injuries to the frontcourt.
Pina: I have high expectations for Stiemsma in these playoffs, mostly because they need about 20 solid minutes from him every night if they want to beat the likes of Chicago. His foul trouble is a maligned issue, but lately he’s shown brief stints of aggressive brilliance while forcing the referee to swallow his/her whistle. Stiemsma does a great job playing within his role, and I don’t predict he’ll deviate from that just because it’s the playoffs. All I want is for Stiemsma to play like Stiemsma.