We interrupt the 24-hour LeBron James news cycle with a bulletin: The Celtics are back. They refuse to die. They're not old or slow or past their time -- just effective, and more dangerous than most people were willing to admit.
With the media glare focused 100 percent on James, his elbow, his looming free agency, and finally his crumbling title aspirations, we forgot to acknowledge one of the frightening developments of the 2010 postseason. The Celtics team that went .500 after Christmas doesn't exist anymore. That team has been replaced by the 2008 Celtics, just in time for a rematch of the 2009 conference semifinals against the Magic.
"One thing we don't lack, and that's confidence," Kevin Garnett said after playing a prominent role in Boston's victory over Cleveland in the conference semis. "Even when we were playing like crap and trying to get our chemistry problems together and our locker room and all the things that come with the season -- I thought we hit our stride at the right time. We're a veteran team. We understand when it's time to lock in as a group, as a unit, and I think we did just that."
After essentially toying with the team with the best record in the league, the Celtics now face the nemesis that put an end to their title defense last season. The Magic didn't shock the basketball world, or send LeBron into an early free-agent summer. All they did was sweep through the first two rounds while barely breaking a sweat. If nobody else understands what a threat the Celtics are, Orlando has no problem digesting it or preparing for it.
"Some people are calling it a major upset," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "I don't know how a team that's essentially the same two years removed from winning a championship, and is healthy pulls a major upset."
The Magic, who survived a grueling seven-game series with Boston last year, are as dialed in as any title contender could be. They have Dwight Howard (when he can stay on the floor), their usual array of deadly 3-point shooters, more depth than the Celtics, better coaching than Cleveland and an important element that was missing from last year's run to the NBA Finals -- a secondary scorer who puts pressure on the defense with his ability to create his own shot. Vince Carter, this is why you're here and Hedo Turkoglu is not.
Oh, and they've enjoyed a week off between series, while the Celtics had a two-day turnaround after knocking off the Cavs. Asked if the Magic might have benefited from their postseason vacation, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, "Sure, Orlando's a beautiful city. I'm sure they had a ball."
Bleacher Report: East and West finals preview
When the ball goes up Sunday afternoon in Orlando, buckle up for another smash-mouth, contentious and dramatic Celtics-Magic showdown. What other kind is there?
No. 2 Magic (59-23) vs. No. 4 Celtics (50-32)
Regular season: Magic won 3-1.
Postseason: Orlando swept Charlotte (4-0) and Atlanta (4-0). Boston beat Miami (4-1) and Cleveland (4-2)
Magic: Orlando's Achilles' heel during the regular season was the free-throw line, where they shot .724. They're worse in the playoffs so far (.690), but that could be deceiving. Four of their top eight players -- Carter, Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis and Matt Barnes -- are over 80 percent. Howard (49 percent in the postseason) actually made 13 of 18 in a game against the Hawks.
Celtics: Ray Allen is lighting it up from the 3-point line in the playoffs, shooting .425 (31 for 73). In four regular-season games against Orlando, he was 8 for 20 (.400).
Magic: Carter. One of the key strategic differences in this rematch will be the Celtics' ability to defend Carter as opposed to Turkoglu. Carter made his presence felt in the regular-season meetings, averaging 19.8 points. Allen, whom Rivers believes didn't get enough credit for his spot-duty defense on James in the conference semis, gives up size against Carter but makes up for it with savvy.
Celtics: Rajon Rondo. After making it clear that the Celtics' foundation is four-deep instead of three, Rondo has a significant size and length advantage over Nelson in this series. Rondo's offensive numbers were superlative against Cleveland, but his ability to disrupt the Cavs' early offense was an underrated factor in Boston's upset.
Garnett vs. Lewis: K.G. turned the clock back about a dozen years in the Cleveland series, giving Antawn Jamison fits in all six games. He'll put similar pressure on Lewis, who is more comfortable than Jamison guarding the perimeter but isn't sturdy enough to contain Garnett on the block. On the other end, there's no way Garnett can close out on Lewis at the 3-point line, so Rivers will decide whether he wants to cross-match and give that assignment to Paul Pierce.
|Big guys Kendrick Perkins and Dwight Howard are known to find foul trouble. (Getty Images)|
Subplots: Rivers returns home to Orlando in the midst of another championship run with his future in doubt. Does he really want to step away from a team that's still contending to watch his sons and daughter play in college? Howard will be in a constant battle to stay out of foul trouble, which he achieved against the Hawks. With two lengthy, sweep-induced layoffs, with the Magic be fresh or rusty? Will the Celtics look as championship-ready as they did against the Cavs when facing a much more formidable coach in Van Gundy? Will Glen Davis run over any more kids on the sideline in Orlando?
Berger's take: Unlike the Cavs, who couldn't figure out how or who they wanted to play, these are two teams that do what they do and do it well. There will be no surprises in this one. The Magic try to wear you down with Howard, who is at his best when he can stay on the floor and get the opponent into foul trouble. Kendrick Perkins is a notorious fouler, so the direction of the whistle in that matchup will be crucial to the outcome. Boston was able to dig in defensively, clog the paint for LeBron, and not worry too much about ball movement or shooters against the Cavs' one-man, stagnant offense. Not the case against the Magic, who swing the ball side-to-side as well as any team left standing and will hurt you when they find the open man.
Orlando is known for shooting the trey, but also defends it well, holding opponents to 29 percent shooting from beyond the arc in the first two rounds. Of course, neither the Bobcats nor Hawks had a 3-point threat as prolific as Allen, who is particularly deadly on pullup 3s in transition. That's the irony of the matchup: With all four regular-season scores under the 100-point mark, you would think the Celtics would want to play a slower-paced game against Orlando. But consider that Boston lost three of four under that paradigm, and that the Celtics' biggest advantage against Cleveland came when they rebounded and got Rondo out in the open floor.
The Rondo-Nelson matchup will be a tipping point in the series. After an up-and-down regular season in which Nelson struggled to maintain his teammates' confidence, he has won them over in the playoffs with smart, borderline spectacular play. But Rondo will be difficult for him to contain, and the Celtics proved in the Cleveland series that they are as good as anybody when it comes to targeting weaknesses that not only lead to positive outcomes on the court, but also cause internal chaos in the opponent's locker room. Keep a close eye on how Rondo attacks Nelson early in the series at both ends of the floor, because it could set a transformative tone for the Celtics. One memo to Rondo: All those clean looks you got at the rim against the defensively-challenged Cavs won't be so pain-free with Howard and/or Marcin Gortat defending the basket in this series.
Who will win the Eastern Conference finals?
Total Votes: 27,862
Without question the biggest keys are 1) Howard's ability to stay out of foul trouble and get Perkins into foul trouble, which would cause Rivers to go to the unreliable Rasheed Wallace earlier and more often than he would like; and 2) How much manpower Boston has to expend defending Carter and Lewis. I could see Pierce on either one of them during the course of the series, depending on whether Howard is on the floor. When he isn't, Rivers would be able to utilize Wallace's length on Lewis and save Pierce for a more comfortable matchup against Carter or Barnes. Garnett against Lewis is a good matchup for Boston offensively, but a potential nightmare on the other end.
The Celtics suddenly became an effective rebounding team in the Cleveland series, so Van Gundy may just want to knock them out of their comfort zone by going big with Howard and Gortat on the floor together. Van Gundy has become comfortable using that combination, which would neutralize Garnett's offensive advantage and keep the Celtics from rebounding and running. Lewis slides to small forward in this lineup, putting pressure on Pierce to chase him around screens and close out to the 3-point line when the Magic swing the ball and play inside-out. How effective a big lineup would be for Orlando depends on how long Van Gundy can get away with Lewis defending Pierce. After Barnes took Joe Johnson completely out of the Atlanta series, it will be tempting for Van Gundy to use him on Pierce and take his chances with the Lewis-Garnett matchup.
We know what Boston does. Nothing will change with them. Is Orlando a juggernaut on a collision course with the franchise's first championship, or a team that got lucky with two inferior opponents in the first two rounds? Probably a little bit of both. In the end, the Magic's versatility, depth and home-court advantage will be too much for the Celtics to overcome.
Prediction: Magic in 7.