Celtics will need a few tricks of their own to beat the Magic
Sunday, May 16, 2010
At some point during Sunday’s series’ opener between Orlando and Boston, one of ABC’s commentators will call for Dwight Howard to carry the Magic on his shoulders, and there’s a chance he might mean that in the literal sense.
Seriously, have you seen Howard’s deltoids? At 6-foot-11 and 265 pounds with the wingspan of a condor, the man is massive, and he poses an equally-massive threat to the Celtics’ title hopes.
Yet stopping Howard is only part of the blueprint if the Celtics are going to advance to The NBA Finals for the second time in three years. Unlike the Cavaliers, who relied solely on LeBron James to carry them through the playoffs, the Magic are blessed with talented role players who complement Howard perfectly, including wily veteran Vince Carter, low-post threat Rashard Lewis and savvy point guard Jameer Nelson.
The second-seeded Magic (59-23 during the regular season) have yet to lose a playoff game in 2010 after sweeping Charlotte and Atlanta in back-to-back series, so they’ll be the heavy favorites when they host fourth-seeded Boston in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday. The Celtics finished 1-3 against Orlando during the regular season, and also lost to the Magic in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, including a Game 7 beatdown at The Garden in which head coach Doc Rivers yanked his starters from the lineup with two and a half minutes remaining.
Given recent history, the odds seem stacked against the Celtics, but here are two factors to consider before you hand Orlando the Eastern Conference trophy:
1. This 2010 postseason has been a breakthrough of sorts for point guard Rajon Rondo, who is averaging a double-double per game (18.0 points, 11.1 assists) and has been Boston’s most consistent player since the playoffs began. Rondo is clearly playing at a higher level now than he was throughout the regular season, and that’s something the Magic must take into consideration in order to prevent him from going off the way he did against Cleveland. His counterpart, Nelson, is averaging a team-high 20.5 points per game in the playoffs, so this will be one of the key match-ups to watch.
2. The Celtics were the No. 1 seed when they lost to Orlando in last year’s semifinals, but they were short-handed because Kevin Garnett sat out the entire postseason with a sprained knee. Though both teams are different this year (specifically Boston, which won 12 fewer games in 2010), Garnett’s presence in this series is another roadblock Orlando must overcome. With the way he shut down Antawn Jamison in the Cleveland series, Garnett defending power forward Rashard Lewis is at least one match-up that should favor Boston. When you consider Howard’s ability to dominate in the low post, having the edge in as many match-ups as possible is critical for the Celtics if they’re going to make this a competitive series.
The obvious first step for Boston is figuring out a way to contain Howard, which few teams have been able to do. Double- and triple-teaming him seems too archaic because everyone else has tried the same approach with limited success. Plus, as previously stated, the Magic have other players who can score if they’re ignored on the perimeter.
What Boston needs to do is get Howard in early foul trouble, which might be his only Kryptonite at this point. As dominant as he can be, Howard is still an unpolished player in many ways and there have been times when his aggressiveness has landed him a spot on the bench in the first half with two or three fouls. Outside of a true post presence such as Garnett, the player most likely to draw contact and frustrate Howard is Rondo, who has slashed his way through the paint this entire postseason.
In the event Howard gets the ball near the basket, which will happen far too many times to count in the next week and a half, the Celtics must make him earn his points. Put him at the free-throw line. Howard shot a horrific 51.9 percent from the stripe during the regular season – Shaq-like numbers. If you can’t hack him in time, the next best tactic is to make him pick up his dribble. In addition to his wretched free-throw shooting, he also committed 224 turnovers this year (the third-highest total in the NBA). When you consider the fact he’s a center – not a point guard who, by nature, has more opportunities to be careless with the ball – that number is even more disgusting.
Despite all of his physical gifts, Howard’s a bad free-throw shooter and an even worse passer. The problem is few teams have the personnel to exploit his weaknesses. The Celtics are hoping Kendrick Perkins (6-10, 280) is up to the challenge, but chances are they’ll have to rely on timely defensive rotations in the paint and exceptional point-guard play to win this series. The element of the unknown makes this must-see TV, particularly because the Celtics suddenly look more like the team that started the season 23-5 than the one that finished a pedestrian 27-27.
The bottom line is if the Celtics can deny Howard the ball, they have a chance. That responsibility rests on Rondo’s shoulders. His aren’t nearly as big as Howard’s, but they’ll have to suffice if the Celtics are going to get past yet another Eastern Conference juggernaut.