- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
BOSTON -- No superstars, no problems? If only it were that easy.
After being forced to defend the likes of Cleveland's LeBron James and Miami's Dwyane Wade in the early rounds of the NBA playoffs, it would seem that the Boston Celtics would relish the opportunity to play a team that didn't boast a scorer among the league's top 25 this season.
Instead, with the Celtics in Orlando for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday (ABC, 3:30 p.m.), they must figure out a way to defend a team that might not have an elite scorer but is chock full of weapons who can light up the scoreboard.
"They're a little deeper, and they definitely gained confidence," Pierce added, referencing last year's team that advanced to the NBA Finals before losing to the Lakers. "It'll definitely be a real challenge for us, especially the way they're playing."
Dating to the regular season, the Magic have won their past 14 games and have breezed through the first two rounds of the postseason. Orlando hasn't lost since April 2 in San Antonio and hasn't been defeated at Amway Arena since March 14 against Charlotte.
Although Orlando's defense deservedly gets much of the credit for the team's success, the Magic also have thrived with a balanced offense that essentially challenges the opposition to pick its poison.
Howard (18.3 points per game, 26th in the NBA) was the team's only representative among the league's top 40 scorers this season. But in the playoffs, point guard Jameer Nelson leads five Orlando players averaging double figures; one year after Nelson missed the Magic's seven-game triumph over Boston in a conference semifinal, he might be the biggest concern for the Celtics.
"There's no secret what they do," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "They use Howard as a great post guy, a guy who can suck in everyone, then Jameer Nelson tries to take you off the dribble, they go draw and kick, and then they look for the 3[-pointers]. That's what they do.
"As important as it is to have a guy guarding Howard straight-up, it's probably just as important to stay in front of Jameer Nelson. His dribble penetration creates more 3s than their post game. We have to take that away as well."
Not since Antoine Walker was at peak wigglage in Boston has a team loved the 3-pointer as much as the Magic. Orlando set an NBA record by connecting on 841 triples this season, a staggering average of 10.26 per game.
In the postseason, the Magic are making even more. They're connecting on an average of 11.13 trifectas through eight games, and their percentage is up nearly a full point at 38.4 percent (after being 37.5 in the regular season).
The Celtics were fourth in the NBA in 3-point defense, limiting opponents to 34.2 percent shooting. But opponents have burned them from the perimeter at times.
Center Kendrick Perkins, who will be responsible for defending Howard, also recognized what the real key to the series is.
"We've got to take away the 3," Perkins said. "They live and die by the 3-pointer; we've got to take that away from them."
Perkins will have his hands full with Howard, a legit superstar, and although he's done a nice job defensively on Superman in recent meetings, the numbers confirm that the Magic are decidedly better against the Celtics with Howard on the court.
According to the wizards at ESPN Stats & Information, the Celtics were a minus-27 in point differential during the four regular-season meetings when Howard was on the floor. With Howard on the bench, Boston benefited to the tune of plus-22 in point differential.
Although much of that can be traced to Howard's dominance in defending the basket, he also must be accounted for offensively. Perkins, who muscled up against Shaquille O'Neal last round, will be tested by Howard's athleticism. Perkins needs to outphysical Howard to be successful.
And that's no small task considering Perkins likely will often be in help mode on defense. Whether it's Nelson or Vince Carter driving to the basket, Perkins is going to have to supplement the guards and protect the paint.
Howard understands the challenge that awaits him.
"I think the past couple of years I've been trying to just fight [Perkins] and get into a wrestling match, playing to his advantage," Howard told reporters, according to the Orlando Sentinel. "So I won't try to do that this series."
The Celtics also know their defense is vital in fueling their offense.
"If we get multiple stops, we can run and we feel that way against anybody," Rivers said. "If we can get stops, get the ball into [Rajon] Rondo's hand, we're going to run, there's no doubt about that. The tough part is getting multiple stops. They're so good offensively, that makes them a tough team."
The Magic are tough because of the versatility and athleticism of Rashard Lewis. They're tough because of the scoring boost Mickael Pietrus provides off the bench. They're tough because J.J. Redick can't be left alone behind the arc. And all that is after Howard, Nelson and Carter.
So even with James and Wade in the rearview mirror, the Celtics fully expect their stiffest challenge yet.
"It's the playoffs; it's not going to get any easier," Perkins said. "I can't run from the challenge."
Neither can his teammates.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
3dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann