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Monday, May 18, 2009

Magic Rain Threes, Dethrone Celtics

Last season the Boston Celtics survived two seventh games en route to winning the NBA Championship but without the injured Kevin Garnett that proved to be too tall of an order this season, as the Orlando Magic advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals with a 101-82 game seven win over the depleted Celtics. In the 2008 playoffs, the Celtics were the big bully on the block as Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe (who missed most of this year's playoffs with a torn ACL) and the since-retired P.J. Brown aggressively patrolled the paint, set screens and made their presence felt at both ends of the court; in the 2009 playoffs, the Celtics went from being the big bully to being the crafty, veteran fighter who relies on his wiles and his tenacity to narrowly survive. That proved to be just enough to dispatch the young Chicago Bulls but the Magic have a nice blend of youth and experience and they just wore down the Celtics, recovering from a 3-2 series deficit to win a seventh game on the road, always a significant accomplishment in a league in which the home team historically wins game sevens four out of five times.

As TNT's cameras showed, Hedo Turkoglu munched on some pizza before the game and then during the game he chewed up Boston's defense to the tune of 25 points, 12 assists, five rebounds and 4-5 three point shooting. The Magic shot a blistering 13-21 (.619) from three point range, which--with the extra point per shot--is equivalent to shooting .929 from two point range; you simply cannot beat a team that shoots that well unless you completely dominate some other facet of the game but the teams fought to a virtual draw on the boards (Boston led 37-35), while Boston's edge in turnovers forced (16-10) did not provide enough extra possessions for the Celtics in light of their poor field goal shooting (29-74, .392). The Celtics scored the first basket of the game but the Magic answered with a Rafer Alston three pointer and led the rest of the way.

Dwight Howard only scored 12 points on 5-9 field goal shooting but he led both teams in rebounds (16) and blocked shots (five). Even though Howard is certainly capable of scoring 30-plus points, his most valuable attributes are his rebounding and his defensive impact; unless he refines his post game he will never be a dominant playoff scorer in the mold of Shaquille O'Neal--who in his prime was much more physically overpowering in the post--or Hakeem Olajuwon, who had impeccable footwork and balance in addition to a soft shooting touch. I still maintain that the best way to deal with Howard and the Magic is to single cover Howard with a strong post player who forces Howard to catch the ball outside of the paint and then to wait to double team until Howard puts the ball on the floor; Howard is not a great passer or ballhandler, so if he has to traverse some territory before he can dunk then it is possible to force him into turnovers or low percentage shots; a team with more frontcourt depth than the Celtics currently have could also employ a "Hack a Howard" policy at times to take advantage of his balky free throw shooting. To beat Orlando you have to stay at home on the three point shooters and dare Howard to score 30-40 points, which is hard for him to do not only because of his skill set limitations offensively but also because the Magic players sometimes struggle to make effective entry passes.

Rashard Lewis (19 points), Mickael Pietrus (17 points) and Alston (15 points) all scored in double figures, so even though Howard did not have a monster game offensively the Celtics did a poor job of containing just about everybody else of note for Orlando.

Ray Allen had his best game of the series (23 points on 9-18 field goal shooting) but Paul Pierce was a non-factor (16 points on 4-13 field goal shooting, including a 30 minute stretch in which he did not make a field goal) and no one else picked up the slack.

Although I expected the Celtics to prevail at home in game seven, in retrospect it looks like Boston's best opportunity to advance happened in the waning moments of game six. The Magic were clinging to a 76-75 lead with 2:03 remaining in the fourth quarter when Pierce missed two free throws; if he had sank them both then the Magic would have had to execute well offensively with the prospect of impending elimination staring them in the face but instead they got the ball back while still leading and managed to close out the game with a 7-0 run. Despite the rest days in between game six and game seven it is pretty obvious that the Celtics could not muster up enough energy--even in front of their home fans--to match Orlando's energy and determination.

As a student of basketball history, I would have been interested to see how this Celtics team would have performed in the playoffs at full strength, particularly against the reloaded Cavs; don't forget that the Celtics started this season 27-2, the best 29 game record in NBA history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:15 AM

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