PER Diem: May 4, 2009
Magic-Celtics tips off on Monday. Here are five key questions for the series
Expectations are pretty high for the second-round series between the Celtics and Magic. Already, Boston has delivered one of the most riveting first-round series in league history in its seven-game classic against the Bulls, and this was the one second-round series on which our experts were divided as to who would prevail.
Amid all those expectations, one thing you definitely shouldn't expect is a lot of scoring. Led by defensive player of the year Dwight Howard, Orlando led the league in defensive efficiency this season. Boston came in second after finishing first the season before.
The big variable here is that both teams come in wounded. Boston's injuries are well known: Star forward Kevin Garnett isn't expected to return until next season -- though the Magic reportedly watched film on him just in case -- and key reserve Leon Powe was lost for the season to a torn ACL.
Orlando, however, has a few key players hurting as well. Starting shooting guard and defensive ace Courtney Lee is out while recovering from surgery on his fractured sinus, probably for the series, and small forward Hedo Turkoglu (ankle) and power forward Rashard Lewis (knee) aren't at full strength either. Additionally, All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson has been out since midseason after separating his shoulder.
Those maladies take some -- but only some -- of the luster off a series that matches two of the league's four best records; one of the rare times you'll see two teams with 59 or more wins meet before the conference finals.
Here are John Hollinger's top five NBA observations for Monday. Insider
- Pachulia big factor in Hawks win
- No ref controversy in Game 7
- Mavs need help on offense
- Nuggets' big edge against Mavs
- Interesting stat of the day
Boston is still the defending champ, after all, and Orlando still has the league's most dominant big man; whoever survives might be an underdog to beat the Cavs in the conference finals, but it'll have a puncher's chance all the same.
Who will survive? For me, it comes down to five key questions. The side that comes up with better answers will find itself in Cleveland two weeks from now.
Who guards Ray Allen? With Lee out of the lineup, a potential mismatch looms at shooting guard. One of Orlando's reserves will have to guard Allen, who was brilliant in Boston's seven-game series win over Chicago, averaging 23.4 points, shooting 46.6 percent on 3s and seemingly nailing a long J every time the Celtics needed a basket.
Orlando, meanwhile, will try to check him with the tag-team combo of J.J. Redick and Mickael Pietrus. Redick played one of his best games as a pro in the Game 6 win over Philadelphia, nailing five 3s and playing surprisingly solid defense, but his ability to guard has long been a huge question mark. The Magic appear to be leaning toward starting him, and if so the Celtics will test him early and often against Allen.
Even if Redick starts, it's more than likely that Pietrus will see the bulk of the minutes against Allen. Signed in the offseason to be a defensive stopper, he's been plagued by injuries and inconsistency. Pietrus is two inches taller than Allen and long and athletic enough to really bother his shots, but he's also mistake-prone; look for Allen to fake him off his feet and get to the free-throw line, where he shot a robotic 95.2 percent this season.
It's up to those two to sink or swim on this matchup. Orlando's only other wing players are Turkoglu, who has his own tough matchup to deal with, and little-used 6-7 string bean Jeremy Richardson.
Which small forward wakes up? Despite their prominent roles on marquee teams, neither Paul Pierce nor Turkoglu played very well in the first round. Turkoglu was coming off a late-season ankle sprain and probably shouldn't have been playing in the first two games against Philly, but it's not like he lit it up late, either; even in Game 5 he shot 3-for-14. For the series he hit 36.5 percent and averaged three turnovers a game.
Although Howard is the big star, Orlando runs a lot of offense through Turkoglu on high pick-and-rolls, so at that end he's arguably the Magic's most important player. The Magic could survive against the likes of Philly with a subpar Turkoglu; against the Celtics, they can't.
As for Boston, Pierce hardly looked the part of a Finals MVP against the Bulls. Two Boston losses could have been averted had Pierce made late free throws, and his brain-lock sixth foul on Joakim Noah's dunk all but clinched Game 6 for Chicago. While he scored at a decent clip (23.1 per game), he didn't shoot well (42.7 percent) or get to the line at a high rate, plus he had 23 turnovers against just 14 assists. Against an Orlando D that's far more tenacious than Chicago's, he'll need to step up his game.
Can Boston's bigs avoid fouls? Howard isn't a terribly refined post player, but he is a foul magnet. He led the NBA in free-throw attempts, and how often he goes to the line in this series should have a great impact on the outcome; not because Howard is a great free-throw shooter (he's terrible, actually), but because foul trouble could wreak havoc with Boston's paper-thin frontcourt.
Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis are the only two Celtics with enough size to defend Howard in the paint, but each will be hard-pressed to stay on the court for 40 minutes because of Howard's foul-drawing ability. Davis, meanwhile, has a challenge of his own: Orlando power forward Rashard Lewis is a 3-point specialist who can torment Big Baby from his preferred perch at the top of the key. In his one start against the Magic this year, Davis picked up five fouls in 19 minutes.
If Perkins and Davis can't stay on the floor, the Celtics have a serious problem. Howard is capable of playing nearly the entire game -- he played 45 and 44 minutes in Games 3 and 4 against Philadelphia -- and if he's matched up against undersized backups like Mikki Moore and Brian Scalabrine, he'll destroy them.
The other wrinkle to the foul issue is that it might force Boston to double-team Howard early, a dangerous move, since it will open up perimeter looks for the league's best 3-point-shooting team.
Will Boston's bench show up? Boston's bench played a key role in the Game 7 win over Chicago, but that doesn't eliminate the fact that it was horrid in the first six games. Moore managed to play himself out of Boston's frontcourt rotation in the Chicago series, a feat previously considered impossible. Tony Allen has two points in 48 playoff minutes, and Stephon Marbury has been bad enough that the team was ecstatic over his 2-point, 1-assist outing in 12 minutes in Game 7.
The one positive for Boston is that it should be much easier to get some burn for Eddie House in this series, since he can match up against players like Redick and Anthony Johnson who aren't likely to take him one-on-one. Chicago's perimeter scorers made it hard to spot him minutes, and he's the only reliable scorer on the Celtics' bench now that Powe is done for the year.
Boston doesn't need the bench to play great; the subs just have to avoid screwing up the game for the starters. The Magic get decent but hardly amazing production from a bench of Johnson, Pietrus, Tony Battie and Marcin Gortat; it's not asking too much for the Celtics' bench to come close to matching it.
What happened to Boston's D last round? One of the hardest things to figure about the Chicago series was how easily the Bulls scored. Boston was the league's second-best defensive team in the regular season, and its numbers didn't diminish that much after Garnett went out.
However, Chicago -- the league's 19th-best offensive team -- had no trouble pumping in 102.2 points per 100 possessions in seven postseason games. Of the eight teams that advanced to the second round, Boston was fifth in defensive efficiency, even though the Bulls were very nearly the worst offensive team in the postseason.
Somehow, the Celtics need to discover that defensive edge they had all season, even after Garnett went out. In two games against Orlando after the All-Star break -- one without Garnett, one with a clearly inured Garnett playing 17 minutes -- Boston defended exceptionally well. It lost both games, but gave up only 86 and 84 points.
That seems miles away from the Celtics team we saw against the Bulls, with the exception of Game 3, but it's perhaps fortunate for Boston that the Magic are a very different animal. They get most of their points from the frontcourt, not the backcourt, plus they play slower and depend more on the 3-pointer.
Nonetheless, I'm picking Orlando in six. Boston's narrow escape in Round 1 exposed a few problem areas: defense and depth most notable among them. Even worse, it wore on the Celtics. All five starters played huge minutes, minutes that expanded thanks to the seven overtime periods, essentially another game.
For Boston's bigs, especially, it's going to be a huge challenge to come back from that grind and deal with a physical menace like Howard for the next two weeks. At this point, I'm not sure they're up to it.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.