Eastern Conference Finals: Magically Delicious

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Making predictions, breaking down the future and saying things like “this team is done” or “this team is unbeatable” have made a lot of very talented people a lot of money and has given a lot of less talented people a very fun pastime. And in a seven-and-a-half month season, culminating in a two-week NBA Finals, it’s only natural that we look ahead, throwing out bombastic statements, defending them to the death despite their conformation being months away.

But sometimes, we need to remember that the beauty of the game is the game itself, not the conversations around it. And no matter how logical that next step seems, when the basketball is actually played, we always run the risk of getting our socks knocked off.

So allow me to officially apologize to the Boston Celtics for counting them out.

I had plenty of good reasons. The shaky bench. The old age. The effort that just wasn’t their any more. The presence of two (seemingly) far superior teams within their conference

None of it mattered.

None of it mattered because the one, biggest, baddest reason as to why the Boston Celtics were finished turned out to be untrue. For 15 months, it had seemed that Kevin Garnett would never be capable of playing at the level Boston needs to make substantial Playoff noise. And yet, against many people’s (including yours truly’s) favorite for the NBA title, Garnett finally reminded us why he deserved this place in this list , why he is an all-time great even though he was plagued by various Troy Hudsons in his starting line up, and why, when discussing a player of his caliber, you can never count him out until he finally hangs them up.

Overreaction? Tell that to Antawn Jamison. You can probably find him weeping in the corner.

Garnett looked like the KG of old, torching whoever guarded him (though, to be fair, Mike Brown could have been putting random people from the crowd on him and it wouldn’t have been as bad as guarding him with Shaq), consistently banging home that mid-range shot and showing that he is still more than good enough to orchestrate a dominant defense. Throughout the series, Garnett averaged 19 and 8 on 52% shooting – pretty similar to his regular season numbers in 2008 (18 and 9 on 54%). That is nothing near his all-world numbers from earlier in the decade, but it’s just what Boston needed — at just the right time. And that’s before factoring in his effect on defense.

As for the rest of those problems?

Tony Allen played the James Posey offensive spark/defensive stopper role, and combined with Glen Davis’ hustle and Rasheed Wallace coming back to life, the bench wasn’t a concern. Ray Allen continues to ignore the hints he gets from his odometer, Paul Pierce shook off a bad offensive start to the series and came up big in games 5 and 6, while acting as the primary defender on a certain someone whom I shall not name (he’s been named enough already, and if I eventually address his performance this series, it will be a long, thought out process, not half-heartedly thrown-out statements that take the limelight away from the teams who have earned it). And the effort? Apparently, they were just saving that for the postseason. As much as I don’t believe in flipping the switch, Boston proved that they have the championship pedigree needed to do so.

And above all, the masterful Rajon Rondo keeps on blossoming before our eyes, extending the “best PG in the world?!” discussion to, at the very least, a four-man race.

I apologize for focusing so much on the series preceding the one I should be talking about – and, yes, I’ll get to Orlando/Boston in a minute – but this can’t be reiterated enough. Because while the result of Boston’s six-game win over Cleveland was largely attributed to the fallacies of the losing squad (specifically those of a certain someone whom I still shall not name) this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Boston won this. Fair and square. And if their form from the first half of Game 1, Game 2 and Game 4 through Game 6 carries on to this series, they have a heck of a chance to make it back to the NBA Finals.

Of course, to do so, they must stop the team that has been playing the best basketball in the league for quite a while.

For months now, several voices have been ignoring the Magic, giving reasons such as “they’re not as good without Hedo” or “they rely too much on Vince Carter,” while people who actually watched the games half-groaned, half-cried: “Hedo wasn’t that good! They don’t need that much from Vince! STOP IGNORING JAMEER NELSON!!!”

Amazingly, their voices remain unheard in certain circles for reasons I cannot explain. While the Magic’s 8-0 run in the postseason so far is somewhat tarnished by the teams they met – both of which seemed quite content with playing the doormat – it still takes a very good team to capitalize on those “just-happy-to-be-here” feelings. Even though the Hawks’ second-round performance was as apathetic as they come, this was the East’s third-best team. And yet, they were obliterated completely, each and every strength nullified, each and every weakness exposed.

No, don’t let the “we just beat the number one overall seed” hype fool you: these Magic are favorites. And while this series is a whole lot closer than it seemed a few weeks ago, we must still remember that even though Boston’s defense seems to be returning to near-2008 levels, Orlando has been playing a similarly elite defense for two straight years, now — along with far superior offense. In fact, throughout this postseason, the Magic have been number one in both offensive efficiency (a ridiculous 116 points per 100 possessions, which is a full 2.8 points more than the Suns) and defensive efficiency (94.6, which is 2.7 points less than the Celtics).

Then again, these Celtics don’t really give a damn about favorites. That should give us a great match-up in and of itself — a match-up enhanced by the fact that, to my eyes, each team’s weakness is pretty ably countered by the other team’s strengths.

Boston struggles against young, athletic teams? Well, the Magic have their share of oldies, but they don’t get much more athletic than Dwight Howard. With Jameer and Jason Williams running the show, Matt Barnes, Mickael Pietrus and the still-athletic-when-he-wants-to Vince running the wings, and an abundance of three-point shooters trailing, this team should be able to run as much as it wants. Heck, we might even see some Brandon Bass.

The Magic’s weakest positions defensively are point guard and power forward? Well, those two positions are manned by Boston’s two best players, if the Cleveland series is any indication.

Boston has a bench full of question marks? The Magic go a legit 11 deep.

Dwight Howard’s offensive game still tends to be inconsistent (though it’s much, much better than the rep it gets)? Kendrick Perkins is the best Dwight-stopper in the league.

It goes on and on.

And there are so many x-factors. There literally isn’t a single player in the starting lineups that won’t have a crucial role in this series.

For the Celtics: Rondo will have to get to the paint, draw fouls on Dwight, create shots for his teammates, and basically carry Boston’s sometimes struggling offense through those sometimes struggly stretches, while trying to stop the scorching Nelson; Allen and Pierce will be counted on to make shots, whether by creating for themselves and trying – sorry if I sound like a broken record here – to draw fouls on Dwight (mostly Pierce) or by making spot-up outside shots (Ray); KG will need to exploit Rashard Lewis like he exploited Jamison; and Perkins? Well, Perkins is up against Dwight. Good luck with that.

For Orlando: Jameer will have to keep up his ridiculous play, breaking down the Boston defense and generally being unstopable; Vince will have to make sure Pierce doesn’t find a rhythm while fitting in to the offense, scoring when he is needed and deferring when he isn’t; Barnes will need to run through screens after Ray Allen; Lewis will have to make weakside threes and maybe even, god forbid, drive to the hoop against Garnett should he be able to force him out; and Dwight will have to stay out of foul trouble to anchor the defense, while still posing a strong enough offensive threat to shrink in the Boston defense, and maybe even getting Perkins and Garnett into some foul trouble of their own.

And those are just the starters. The series could eventually be decided by the benches or by the coaches or by the refs (hate to bring them up, but this has become an increasingly important factor with Dwight). Anything can happen. Everybody is important.

Which is why I think the Magic win.

When considering everything and anything, they just have more. They are deeper. They are younger. They are healthier. They are just as good, if not better, on defense. They are way better on offense. They have the better coach. They have home-court advantage.

The Celtics made everybody – including me – look like idiots after handing it to the Cavs. They sure could do it again. The difference is that this time, they aren’t facing a team on the brink of a mental meltdown. They are facing the defending Eastern Conference champion. They are facing a team that is playing better basketball — better than last season’s Magic and better than this season’s Celtics.

Magic in 7

2 thoughts on “Eastern Conference Finals: Magically Delicious”

  1. Everything was good until I saw that crappy list of players which you linked. No Nash, KG over Kobe, Shaq at #6, Lebron at #5. Agree with your prediction though. Also, I can’t wait to see what happens when Vince and PP get the s*&**(*( knocked out of them on a really hard foul. They better keep the strechers near

  2. Good analysis, but the big hole is you thinking Orlando plays as good or better defense than the Celtics. Granted the number back you up. But numbers lie sometimes. Celtics play better defense by a good bit – because they play harder and more together and have better defensive players. Orlando’s numbers are elevated by Dwight Howard crushing weaker opponents, but let’s get real, Dwight is a front runner and when he has to play with somebody his own size (like KP, KG and Sheed) he ain’t no Superman. In fact, he sort of looks like he sucks on offense, with absolutely no game, just all athleticism. And on D he’ll still get his blocks, but really, half of those go onto the crowd anyway and right back to the other team. The guy ain’t a true gamer like the guys on the Celtics, really neither is anyone on Orlando (soft guys like Rashard, Vince, Dwight), I mean the toughest guys on Orlando after Matt Barnes who is injured and can’t play right are Jameer Nelson and JJ Reddick and Gortat. I mean those guys got some game, but they aren’t carrying the rest of that weak sauce.

    Most important is that Orlando’s offense relies on other teams double-teaming Dwight, which the Celtics don’t do, allowing their guys to stay on the shooters and not give them open looks. That is a huge deal, it’s the key to the series.

    But look….forget all that and it comes down to this – the Celtics are tougher and want to win more. You can just see this in their faces and by the way they play. Hearing folks talk about this series is a lot like hearing everyone in 2008 saying Lakers will sweep and Celtics have no chance. People elevate teams based on stats but fail to realize that when the matchups are close it comes down to who wants it more and who plays tougher defense. Celtics got that over the Magic easily.

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