Early in the 2008-09 NBA season, it became clear that there were three elite teams in the Eastern Conference. That meant an epic semifinal battle for the right, in all likelihood, to face the top seed in the conference finals. Now that we've finally reached a Boston/Orlando showdown, some of the luster is off because of Kevin Garnett's injury. The Celtics survived a seven-game battle of attrition with Chicago, while the Magic did not need to work nearly so hard to defeat Philadelphia in six games. Do those factors add up to an Orlando "upset"?
WHEN THE CELTICS HAVE THE BALL
Celtics Offensive Rating: 112.6 (5th NBA) Regular Season, 112.1 (5th) Playoffs
Magic Defensive Rating: 103.0 (1st) Regular Season, 101.6 (3rd) Playoffs
The numbers and the eyeball test are in agreement: Boston hasn't missed Garnett a bit on the offensive end of the floor. The Celtics defeated the Bulls as much with their offense as with their vaunted half-court defense. It all starts now with the perimeter, where Boston has three amazingly talented starters all capable of dominating in different ways. Rajon Rondo's specialty is the drive, Paul Pierce is lethal in isolation with midrange scores and Ray Allen is building his case as one of the great playoff shooters of all time.
Rondo has benefitted most from the Celtics' shift in offensive philosophy without Garnett as an option in the post. His scoring is up, and he's done it while improving his shooting percentage by living in the paint. Cutting off Rondo's penetration should be the first order of business for the Magic. He did seem somewhat less aggressive in Games Six and Seven against Chicago, looking first to pass and not finishing with the same mastery inside. Rondo is dealing with a sore ankle, although it was impossible to tell much of the series. Rafer Alston is a solid veteran defender at the point, though quickness is not exactly his forte. The same could be said of backup Anthony Johnson. If Rondo starts getting loose, the Magic will have to adapt in terms of team defense more than by changing matchups.
Allen's 63.2 percent True Shooting in the opening round was buoyed by making 27 three-pointers at a 46.6 percent clip. There were three NBA teams who made fewer threes combined in the first round. Defending Allen requires stamina and determination because of the number of screens he uses. Allen's defender cannot be help-conscious and must stay with him at all times. Rookie Courtney Lee will be a natural matchup when he's able to return to the lineup. In his absence, J.J. Redick is the best offensive option, but ill-equipped to defend any of the Celtics' perimeter starters. Mickael Pietrus is the better option, though Pietrus relies more on his athleticism than technique on defense.
Down the stretch, Pierce is Boston's first option, and rightly so. Because Pierce is not a highly efficient shooter, the key to containing him is keeping him off the free-throw line. Hedo Turkoglu offers good size in matching up with Pierce. The big concern from Orlando's perspective is that Turkoglu is already dealing with his own lingering ankle injury and will carry a big load on offense. How much can he be asked to do?
Looming in the paint for the Magic is Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, which has two opposing effects on the Celtics' strategy. Howard's presence makes forays into the paint less productive because of his imposing shot-blocking. At the same time, if Boston can get Howard into foul trouble, it's a huge advantage. Howard's help defense may open up the glass for Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis, who have helped the Celtics improve their offensive rebounding in Garnett's absence. Because Orlando plays small, Perkins and Davis will be dealing with smaller defenders if Howard is out of the picture because he's asked to help out against the drive or the pick-and-roll.
Davis was the surprise for Boston in the series with Chicago, playing more than 40 minutes a night and averaging 18.1 points. Davis effectively made the transition to a midrange shooter over the course of the season, going from a liability to an asset on the perimeter in the span of a few months. That enables the Celtics to spread the floor without having to sacrifice defense and rebounding by going small.
The bench struggled for Boston all series long before coming up with a big effort at the right time in Game Seven. The streaky Eddie House can carry a team for stretches when he gets hot, and the Celtics have a few options to hide him on defense in this series. Brian Scalabrine can spread the floor when the Boston big men get in foul trouble, while Tony Allen remains a useful defensive player despite his occasional penchant for the boneheaded foul.
WHEN THE MAGIC HAS THE BALL
Magic Offensive Rating: 111.7 (9th) Regular Season, 111.7 (6th) Playoffs
Celtics Defensive Rating: 103.5 (2nd) Regular Season, 106.4 (6th) Playoffs
The funny thing about the Philadelphia 76ers doing an excellent job of defending the three-point line against Orlando in the opening round was that, on the strength of a Game Six outburst, the Magic ended up with an Offensive Rating for the series identical to the team's regular-season mark. Meanwhile, the Celtics slipped at the defensive end in the first round, and it doesn't take advanced analysis to realize that Garnett's absence was the biggest factor.
Boston did get a very good defensive series from Perkins, who blocked 3.0 shots per game and continues to establish himself as a premier paint defender. Perkins will loom large in this series, with the added responsibility of battling Howard in the post. He's done a good job in the past, and Howard averaged just 16.1 points on 49.8 percent shooting against the Celtics in the regular season. The concern with Perkins is foul trouble, because Boston has no one else on the roster capable of battling Howard in the low post. Perkins cannot pick up ticky-tack fouls and has to be very careful early in games.
While we're here, let us consider the assertion by Andre Miller that Orlando's offense is better without Howard because of superior ball movement. If that's the case, it's not at all evident from the numbers. According to 82games.com, the Magic's Offensive Rating was 7.6 points better per 100 possessions with Howard on the floor this season. What's more, the team assists on 55 percent of field goals with Howard as compared to 51 percent without him. Yes, Orlando looked elsewhere instead of trying to forcefeed Howard in the post. However, his presence opens up good looks on the perimeter for his teammates time and again.
The Magic does need to generate offense outside of Howard's post looks. The team was at its most dangerous when both Jameer Nelson and Turkoglu were capable of initiating out of the pick-and-roll, something newly-acquired Rafer Alston cannot entirely duplicate. Add in Turkoglu's ankle injury and it's easy to see how Orlando's offense could go through droughts against Philadelphia.
Rashard Lewis' matchup with Davis figures to be one that goes in the Magic's favor. Davis is hardly best deployed chasing Lewis around the perimeter. Lewis knocked down four three-pointers in Orlando's March 25 win over the Celtics, when Garnett started but was shut down after 17 minutes and Davis played the majority of the game. If Game Six was useful for Orlando for anything, it was a reminder of Lewis' myriad talents. Depending on the matchups, Lewis should get some touches in the post, where he can be effective against smaller defenders like Scalabrine or Pierce if the Celtics put an extra guard on the floor.
Well before his Game Four three-pointer that changed the complexion of the series with the 76ers, Turkoglu had a deserved reputation as one of the league's best end-game shot-makers. Turkoglu works well in these scenarios because he is a good ballhandler who can create off the dribble, though usually he prefers to shoot the jumper, either stepping back or dribbling into the shot. His size means bigger defenders are not a huge deterrent to Turkoglu after teams switch the pick-and-roll.
To win this series, the Magic will need to shoot better from the three-point line. From Orlando's perspective, an encouraging sign watching the Boston/Chicago series had to be the Celtics' inability to control the Bulls from beyond the arc. Perimeter defense will have to be a much bigger focus for Boston in this series, though the drive-and-kick opportunities created by Derrick Rose won't be the same problem with the conservative Alston running the show.
The wild card in this series is how much gas the Celtics have left in the tank. I'm not sure if it's possible to quantify a fatigue effect in the postseason; certainly, there haven't been a lot of teams that have played series as grueling as the one Boston just completed, one in which no fewer than four Celtics averaged 40 minutes a night. (Kendrick Perkins, in part because of foul trouble, played a leisurely 38.6 mpg.)
If Garnett was healthy, this would be a clash of the league's top two defensive teams. Instead, it's a case of a balanced Boston team against an Orlando squad with an advantage at the defensive end but a slightly weaker offense. Garnett's absence had a marked impact on the regular-season series. The Celtics took the first two games, including a January road win, but lost once without Garnett (as well as Rondo) at home and also when he was limited.
Based on the formula I've been using to help pick postseason series this year, Boston's home-court advantage is enough to make this something close to a toss-up. While the Celtics have concerns about fatigue, Orlando has to deal with the loss of Lee for an indefinite period. Boston might not be doomed quite as badly as is believed in some quarters. Still, asking the Celtics to win another series without Garnett seems like too much to ask. (No, for the record, I'm still not putting much stock into the possibility of a Garnett return. Even if he did play, there's no guarantee he'd be able to contribute much of anything.) The champions' defense ends here.
Orlando in six.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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