Celtics-Magic preview: Orlando's different, but are they better?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Visit CitySwagUsa.com for high-quality custom-printed tees!On the day of March 17, 2009, I was as confident as can be.

The C's were set to battle the Magic for the right to head to the Eastern Conference Finals, but I wasn't worried at all. Even without Kevin Garnett, I figured Boston had enough in the tank to overwhelm the inexperienced Magic. After all, their historical record in game 7's was obscene: 20-5 in game 7's overall, 17-3 in game 7's in Boston. And the current team? Why, they were just 3-0. I saw Hedo Turkoglu eating a slice of pizza before the game, and every doubt I still had about the game evaporated. Who eats a f---ing slice of pizza before the biggest game of the season?

Well, now I know the answer: A player who was calm, unworried, and ready to lead his Orlando Magic into the Eastern Conference Finals. A player who is 6'10", but possesses the playmaking skills of a guard. A player who spreads the floor with his jumpshot, but uses the screen-and-roll, or the pick-and-pop, as well as just about anyone in the NBA.

A player who no longer plays in Orlando.

Losing Turkoglu hurts Orlando, badly. The Magic added Vince Carter, and threw in Brandon Bass, Matt Barnes, Jason Williams, and Ryan Anderson to boot, but the jury is still out on whether they're as good as they were last season. The thing that made them so good last season was their versatility; Vince is mega-talented, but he doesn't pose the matchup threats Hedo did. He just doesn't.

When the Magic played Hedo, Rashard Lewis, and Dwight Howard in the frontcourt, man-oh-man were they tough to match up with. Not only are all three of those guys 6'10" or taller, but they're all athletic, and Lewis and Hedo both play on the perimeter, where opposing players find it very difficult to guard them. And when they threw Mickael Pietrus out there at the two (don't forget, he had an absolutely killer postseason), the Magic were long, strong, and skilled. (They could also play the athletic Courtney Lee out at the two. Another player they miss.)

The Magic put Howard down low and four other guys outside, and Hedo and Rashard invariably caused matchup problems for just about any team in the league. The only team that could match up with that frontcourt was the team that ended up smoking the Magic in the Finals; the Lakers were the one team with the length and athleticism to match up, and when they did the Magic weren't so tough to beat anymore.

Now, a lot of teams can match up with the Magic. As talented as Carter is, he just doesn't bring everything that Hedo brought to the table. The Magic are much more conventional this season, and I don't think that's a good thing for them. Their versatility, their ability to create mismatches, was the reason Orlando was so good and, with Hedo leaving, a lot of that is now gone.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you the Magic aren't still a very good team. They are. They are absurdly deep, have shooters everywhere you look, and if I'm not mistaken Dwight Howard is still pretty strong and athletic. Lewis proved himself last season, Jason Williams looks four years younger than the last time we saw him, and Dwight Howard now has more than one move in the post. (Okay, I lied about that last part.)

I just think they took a step back from last season. I'm not positive they have, and I guess only time will tell. But if you had me at gunpoint and demanded that I tell you whether the Magic were better or worse this year than last, I would say they're worse.

They'll miss the pizza man.

Here are some points to look for in tonight's game.

Kendrick Perkins vs. Dwight Howard

After Perk did such a great job on Howard in the playoffs, (corny joke alert!!) we might have to start calling Perk Kryptonite. All jokes aside, Perk is one of the few human beings strong enough and mobile enough to take away Howard's two biggest advantages: his strength and freakish athleticism. Howard will get his blocks, and he'll get his rebounds, but if Perk can harass him into taking a bunch of his weak, sweeping hook shots, Howard could have a subpar shooting percentage in this one.

Kevin Garnett's mobility

I know, I know, I'm the same guy who once said "Garnett is back! He's 100%!" But, he's not. He still hasn't regained all his lateral movement, and he still can't jump without fully gathering himself first. Garnett still makes an enormous difference on the Celtics, but he's not back to what he used to be. He's just not.

So far on the young season, Garnett hasn't really had to defend a perimeter threat. The only opposing power forward who played mostly on the perimeter was Oleksiy Pecherov, and while I wouldn't exactly call him "a threat", Pecherov lit up Garnett and the Celts. It will be interesting to see Garnett guard Lewis; I'm hoping he'll show enough mobility to be able to stick in front of him. At any rate, he'll do a better job on Lewis than Big Baby and Scal did in the playoffs.

Ray Allen's play

I don't want to call Ray out but, well, I'm going to call Ray out. Ray was flat-out awful through most of the Orlando series. He was hounded into a horrendous shooting performance, into completely disappearing, by J.J. Redick. J.J. F---ing Redick. Now, I know Redick's improved his defense quite a bit, but there is no way he should be able to defend Ray-Ray.

Today, he'll probably be guarded by Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus, and Redick. Let's hope Ray plays a little better than he did last time he faced the Magic.

Boston's energy

Over the last five or so games, Boston has played with, oh, just about zero energy. They haven't shown their trademark intensity in quite some time, at least for a full game. Their defense, to be frank, has been terrible, and their offense has lacked crisp ball movement and movement with a sense of purpose.

It's one thing not to get excited about a game with the Warriors, or the Pacers. But if the Celtics don't open up a bottle of passion for tonight's game, something's wrong. This is a playoff rematch, a chance to get revenge against the Magic with the whole country watching to see who will emerge victorious. This is a big game, and big games --even though they're only one game -- explain a lot about a team.

This one should be fun, and it should let us know a lot more about where the Celtics are as a team.

Let's just hope the Magic miss their pizza man more than they think.

Running Diary: Vince Carter shoots just enough for Magic to down Celtics

Visit CitySwagUsa.com for high-quality custom-printed tees!This game reminded me of everything I already knew.

The C's are not the team they need to be, and the Magic are not as good as they were last season.

We'll start off with the Celtics. I was actually pretty happy with their effort level. While the C's have looked unengaged (to say the least) at times this season, they played a large portion of this game with playoff-like intensity. They were fighting for loose balls, scratching and clawing for rebounds, and acting like they really wanted to win this thing.

Unfortunately, their offense was very close to atrocious. Far too often, the Celtics resorted to one-on-one play. When Boston is at its best (really, when any team is at its best), the ball is moving from side to side, players are moving without the ball, and everyone is unselfish. Tonight, it was throw it to Paul Pierce and get out of his way, or get it to Ray and let him create something, or wait until the shot clock is down and fire up an ill-advised stepback jumper. The C's showed no cohesiveness, and no willingness to let the offense find them open shots. They were forcing tough drives to the hoop and playing far too much isolation basketball.

Still, they played far less isolation basketball than Orlando. Remember Orlando last season? They played beautiful basketball, spacing the floor and using Hedo Turkoglu as the facilitator getting the ball to all their perimeter options. Now, Vince Carter is the new facilitator, and we'll just say he didn't do a lot of "facilitating." Throughout the whole game, Carter was content to fire bad shots, fadeaways with a man in his face, and ended up taking 29 shots to score 26 points. The Magic's spacing is still there, but the ball movement is no longer anywhere near the level it was last year.

In the fourth quarter, the offense was "Get the ball to Vince and get the hell out of his way." They still call him "Vinsanity", but now it's for his insane shot selection, rather than his athleticism. He hit some tough shots, but missed a whole lot more. If the Celtics weren't ice-cold, they would have come away with the win, and most of the blame would have fallen squarely on the shoulders of Vince Carter. Shoulders that are likely sore from chucking so many shots.

Vince had a great stat line, at first glance at least, with 26 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists, but it's clear his affect on the rest of the team is negative. You could almost see Rashard Lewis frowning as he watched Vince fling up 27-foot jumpers while Lewis stood on the other side of the court with no hopes of ever touching the basketball. The Magic came away with the win, but they have a long ways to go to becoming a title contender.

And so do the Celtics. Their offensive execution needs to get a lot better, and selfless team basketball needs to make a quick return to Beantown. I liked the fight and tenacity Boston showed, but I didn't like their execution.

Not one bit.

Here's a running diary of my thoughts during the game, while it was happening.

First Quarter

  • The game hasn't started yet, and already we have some great news: According to ESPNBoston's Chris Forsberg, Tony Allen -- despite practicing recently -- will not be playing in games any time soon. Amen.

  • The first shot for the Magic: A fadeaway twenty-foot jumper by Vince Carter. It went in, but the Celtics will certainly live with that one all game long.

  • Tweet of the night award goes to Ric Bucher:

    "JWilliams tells me he played last year on a rec team w/ Tim + Penny Hardaway + Shaun Livingston. Imagine that coming at you, rec leaguers."

    Now, I've played in some rec leagues in my life, and most of them are with old, balding guys with beer bellies and huge knee braces. I know Williams, Penny, and Livingston all have the knee braces, but they don't exactly fit the mold of rec leaguers that I'm used to.

  • Is it just me, or should Jason Williams have a whole heap of trouble guarding Rajon Rondo tonight? Please be aggressive, Rondo. Please. Make him remember he's not in the rec leagues anymore.

  • Orlando looks (at least) a step quicker than Boston in the early going. A 12-0 run puts it at 17-6, Magic. Doc Rivers, meanwhile, watched as the wheels fell off and waited until the car broke down before mercifully calling a timeout. I'm a fan of letting your team play through adversity, but that timeout could have come a lot, lot sooner.

  • Perk shoves a Magic player with two hands, yet still has the audacity to scowl after the call. You know how Perk should know he was wrong to argue the call? Even Tommy Heinsohn agreed with it.

  • Vince Carter has looked good in the early going, but he's dribbling around a lot without going anywhere. The Magic last year never had that stoppage in ball movement that they've had with Carter so far tonight. Hedo Turkoglu spent a lot of time handling the ball, but it was always with a purpose; he was always making plays when he dribbled. Carter just seems to hold the ball a second or two too long without doing anything with it.

  • Dwight Howard, according to CSNNE, has yet to score a single point outside the paint. Not just tonight, but for the ENTIRE SEASON. That's beyond incredible.

  • The Celtics are getting smacked around right now, 24-13, but I don't feel at all like this game is done. Boston is actually getting very good shots; they're just missing them. Garnett has missed a lot of easy ones, Pierce and Ray have missed open jump shots, and I just get the feeling this one will be very close before it's all said and done.

  • Kendrick Perkins is in early foul trouble (it's kind of tough to deal with Dwight Howard, even if he has yet to develop a real post move), and that would have spelled huge trouble for the C's last season. We would have seen either the undersized Big Baby or Powe coming into the game, and it would have spelled trouble against a team like the Magic with a legitimate big man. This year? Not such a problem, because Rasheed Wallace is there to back Perk up.


  • Mickael Pietrus is looking like playoff Mickael Pietrus, rather than regular season Mickael Pietrus. He's been ice-cold so far this season, shooting only 38.4% from the field, but drained his first three three-balls to remind everyone of his lethal shooting in last year's postseason. Tommy Heinsohn on Pietrus: "Man, if I were him I'd go to Mohegan Sun, or Foxwoods, or something."

  • It's 29-13, Magic. They are moving the ball beautifully (when Carter isn't holding it a dash too long) and are getting wide open threes. The Celtics, meanwhile, are shooting 5-24 from the field, and have missed at least their last six shots. You remember back when I said the C's would start to hit open shots? Well, they've shot even worse since then.

    Second Quarter

  • I need Rondo to step his game up. He's being guarded by old, ragged White Chocolate, and still has yet to do anything.

  • The Celts finally have some energy, and it's because their point guard is running the ball down the floor and finding the open man. That point guard, though, is Marquis Daniels, not Rondo. 29-20, Magic.

  • Shelden Williams continues to surprise me and prove me wrong. This time, he's doing his normal rebounding and tough, gritty play, but none of that was what surprised me. I was shocked and stunned when Williams was matched up with Rashard Lewis and was able to move his feet well enough to cut him off and force him into a very tough, contested fadeaway. Last season, with KG down, nobody on the Celtics could come close to matching up with Lewis, but Shelden comes right in and has done a great job on him so far. Keep doing your thing, Shelden.


  • Ray Allen remembers the great job J.J. Redick did on him in the playoffs. The first play Ray was defended by Redick, he put him right on the low post, big-boy'ed him and drew the foul. Ray continues to show an improved post game this season.

  • Vince Carter just dribbled around for five or so seconds, got the ball poked away from him to about three feet behind the three-point line, went and retrieved it, then turned and fired the shot with plenty of time still remaining on the shot clock. Don't get me wrong, I recognize Vince has had a very good game so far. It's just always been evident he could be so much better if he just improved the little aspects of the game. Like not dribbling so much, and not firing up ill-advised shots, and not getting his pocket picked by Marquis Daniels twice in the same quarter.

  • Tommy Heinsohn on Vince Carter's defense: "I'd go at him all night long. You KNOW he doesn't want to play defense."

  • The C's are staging a big comeback in this second quarter, and have the Magic back on their heels. After the 19-9 Celtics run, the score is 38-32, Magic.

  • Remember when I said Carter was playing well? I was lying. It seemed like he was shooting well, and it seemed like he was doing some good things to go along with his sometimes bone-headed play, but he's actually 4-12 from the field for 8 points. If you're counting at home, that's 12 shots to score 8 points. He's also the only Magic starter right now to have a negative +/-. So my merciless Carter bashing has some merit.

  • Carter just picked up his third foul, so maybe I can stop bashing him. Heinsohn, though, can't. "That guy doesn't want to play defense, he can't move his feet on defense." Well said, Tommy. Well said.

  • Ray Allen is a man. An honest-to-goodness, two-balled man. And did I mention that those balls were very big? You'd never see me standing in front of a streaking Dwight Howard to take a charge dead in the chest. Not in a million years. But Ray did it and, surprisingly, he lived to tell the story.

  • The most impressive play of the first half happened after the half ended. Pietrus fired up a three-quarter shot and damn near made it. It wasn't so impressive that he almost made it, but that he was able to reach the basket from the opposite foul line WITH HIS LEFT HAND. That's right, he shot it lefty. Wow, it's his night. Tommy was right, he needs to head to a casino. Or buy a lottery ticket.

  • 43-40 Magic at the half. The Celtics played a great second quarter to get back into this thing. The second unit continues to be the C's saving grace, especially after they continually get off to bad starts.

  • Shocking stat of the first half: The C's shot merely 32.6%. Look for that number to improve in the second half. I hope. Please. I'm begging now.

    Third Quarter

  • Does Pietrus ever miss against the Celtics? It's unbelievable. He is NOT a deadeye shooter, yet every time he plays the Celtics he looks like the second coming of Jimmy Chitwood. It's unbelievable.


  • Uh-oh. Garnett gets kneed by the second coming of Jimmy Chitwood, then immediately started limping. He waved Rasheed back to the bench when Doc tried to sub 'Sheed in, so that's a good sign. But you don't want to see the big fella limping.

  • The C's just don't have the same energy this quarter as they did in the second. Orlando's getting open shots and Boston isn't working hard enough to get themselves some clean looks on offense.

  • Right as I wrote about the Celtics not having any energy, Garnett really got into it with Howard. They were mixing it up, and Garnett is fired up. I hope this lights a fire under Garnett and, in turn, the Celts.

  • Vince Carter is now 4-16 with 11 points. Something tells me Hedo's a better fit.

  • Perk has five fouls, and this would be a HUGE development... if it weren't for the presence of Rasheed on the bench. I don't care how many threes he chucks up, or how many technical fouls he'll accumulate; 'Sheed is an enormous addition to this team.

  • Vince just hit two shots in a row. I never said he wasn't talented, and I never said he wasn't a good player. Just that he's frustrating, even to me and I don't even like his team.

  • Scal's in the game! 'Nuff said. I don't know why Shelden isn't, but I guess Doc thinks he needs Scal spreading the floor.

  • Or maybe he needs Scal's defensive presence. Scal's first play, he took a charge. Scal is overpaid, and he's overweight, but he knows how to play basketball and is capable of giving the Celtics good minutes. And no, I'm not even kidding.

  • Bad stat of the night: Kevin Garnett passed the 40,000 minutes mark tonight. Only four other Celtics in history have ever played 40,000 career minutes. That is not a good sign for Garnett; he's getting old, and he's getting run down.

  • The Celtics are down seven to end the third, 66-59, but are lucky to be even that close. The offense has not been good so far; shots are contested, the balls not moving, and the C's have spent far too many possessions playing one-on-one basketball. Move that rock, fellas. Get it swinging, then attack when the defense is on its heels.

    Fourth Quarter

  • Greg Dickerson reports that Kevin Garnett just ripped into his team for too many offensive isolations. Thank you, Kevin. You see the exact same thing I do.

  • Dwight Howard has taken only four shots so far. Part of that is getting fouled on a lot of his attempts (so they don't count), but another part of that is sound Celtics defense on Howard. He hasn't had any easy alley-oops or open dunks tonight.

  • A quick Celtics run puts the C's down three, and the Garden is bumping.

  • With all the lauded depth on Orlando's side (I know, I know, they're missing Jameer Nelson and Brandon Bass), their bench has scored a combined eight points, and every bench member except Matt Barnes has a negative +/-. For the C's, they've only scored 9 points off the bench, but 'Sheed has 9 rebounds and every single bench member has a positive +/-.

  • Vince Carter just took a horrendous shot with Marquis Daniels draped all over him. Alas, it went in. At this point, the Magic have taken 58 shots and Carter has taken 21 of them. I don't think that's exactly what Stan Van Gundy wants.

  • Carter again, with another bad shot, but he hits a fadeaway three. Does he ever take good shots? Is he even capable?

  • Next Magic possession: Carter misses a 29-foot three. It's unbelievable. His shot selection is like Tony Allen's, only if Tony Allen had just blown four lines of coke and downed six shots of Jack Daniels.

    Bulls vs. Magic

  • Every time it seems like the Celtics are finally ready to get back into this thing, the Magic make a big play. The C's are threatening to come back, but have yet to make the play to put them over the top.

  • My heart is racing, my chest is thumping, and the Celtics are down only one. 'Sheed has played unbelievable defense on Howard, stealing the last two entry passes, and Vince Carter's shot selection has, if anything, gotten even worse. He isn't just the Magic's go-to guy right now, he's their only guy. Mostly because he's taking a horrible shot before anyone else gets a chance to touch the ball.

  • Sheed, Dwight and Vince were all packed together coming out of a timeout, and if you can read lips you could see what Wallace told the Magic's stars. (Or even if you can't read lips. It was pretty easily noticeable.) What did he say? "Y'all bitches."

  • Sheed is only 3-14 from the field, but he's playing his best basketball of the season. He's doing a great job on Howard, he has grabbed two huge offensive rebounds, and he's more active than he's been all season.

  • Update: Sheed is now 4-15, and he just tied the game with a little 6-foot jumper off a beautiful Paul Pierce wraparound pass. 78-78. My heart is damn near out of my chest. I'm at severe risk of a heart attack right now, and I don't think I'm even exaggerating.

  • This game has been so exciting I haven't even noticed Rondo's been out for this whole fourth quarter. Eddie's been playing his minutes. And as I'm talking about this, Rondo gets put back in.

  • The Magic offense in the fourth quarter has been: Pass the ball to Vince Carter, everyone else run away, and watch as Vince Carter flings up whatever bad shot he can think of. Unfortunately, Vince just hit his last one to put the Magic up two, but you get the feeling Rashard Lewis and co. cannot at all enjoy playing with Vince.

  • Ray Allen overdribbles, then bounces one off his foot and loses it for a turnover. That was a microcosm of the Celtics' night. Overdribbling, one-on-one play, and bad results.

  • Doc is still furious with the ref two plays after Pierce was called for a ticky-tack foul on Rashard Lewis with only 3 seconds left on the shot clock. There was contact there, and it was a borderline call that could have gone either way, but not a call you normally see in the last couple minutes of a close game.

  • The Magic win, 83-78, and the Celtics have another disappointing home loss. I guess that's what happens when you run up against one of the NBA's better teams and shoot 34.5%. A bad loss for the Celtics, one they certainly could have won had they played unselfish basketball the whole way through.
  • NBA parity: Wasn't the NBA supposed to be top-heavy this season?

    Monday, November 16, 2009

    The top tier of NBA teams was supposed to be vastly superior to all other teams this season.

    I would run down the offseason moves made to improve the NBA's elite, but you know them all. Shaq to the Cavs, Vince Carter to the Magic, Ron Artest to the Lakers, yada yada yada. You know what happened. You know the rich got richer and the poor, well, they stayed just as poor.

    But did they really stay so poor? Suddenly, it seems as if the NBA has parity. Out of nowhere, the poor somehow got themselves a little money. It's very early still, but what in the hell is going on in the National Basketball Association?

    With most teams only about ten games into the season, all the teams thought to be championship contenders have at least three losses. The Lakers, Cavs, Magic, Celtics, Nuggets and Spurs all have at least three L's. Not only are they losing, but each team has looked surprisingly vulnerable at times. The Celtics look old, the Lakers look soft, the Cavs look unable to adjust to Shaq's presence, the Magic miss their PED-abuser and Hedo Turkoglu, the Spurs defense is swiss cheese; the list goes on and on. The cream of the crop has not been rising as quickly or as often as most NBA observers thought it would.

    At this point in the season, the only teams with two losses are Phoenix, Atlanta, Miami and Milwaukee. Huh??? If you told me today that you would have predicted those four teams as the teams that would have the least losses at this point, you'd be either a) a liar, b) a genius, or c) a dumbass. And there is no other option.

    The Hawks and Heat were expected to be in the playoffs, but just as mediocre four or five seeds and maybe even worse. The Suns and Bucks, meanwhile, weren't supposed to earn a sniff of postseason play. To be honest, maybe neither team will. Maybe their hot starts are just that, hot starts, and not in any way indicative of how the teams will perform the rest of the season.

    But does it really seem like that? The Hawks have had the best start of any team, and I'm not just talking about their record. They smacked Denver, took it to Boston (in Boston), and have the third-best point differential in the entire NBA (behind Boston and Portland). They not only look young, athletic and skilled, but they look like a hungry team ready to take the next step into the NBA's upper-echelon. Before the season, I would have disagreed vehemently (aka tell you that you were on crack) if you told me the Hawks would be the best team at this point in the season, but they have been. It's true.

    And if Atlanta hasn't been the best team, it's been the Suns. They also beat Boston in Boston, have scored at least 100 points in every game so far this season, and their two losses are to Orlando and L.A. (The Lakers, not the Clippers.) The Suns seemed poised to enter another year of lottery ping-pong balls, but instead have regained the look of an offensive juggernaut that can compete with any team in the league.

    The Heat and Bucks have surprised, too, but it doesn't just end there. Houston's a bunch of ragtag role players and bargain-basement bums, but they look like a playoff team. Dallas is looking better than expected, is suddenly a defensive-minded ballclub, and has done most of it with Josh Howard down to injury. Indiana looks at least formidable, the Kings have somehow, someway won four straight games, Oklahoma City looks like it might be a year ahead of schedule, and New Jersey looks like a viable playoff contender. (Just kidding about the last one. New Jersey is bad. Historically bad, perhaps.)

    Anyways, what I'm trying to say is this: The top teams aren't as good as everyone thought they were. We thought there would be five or six teams battling to win 60-70 games, we thought those five or six teams would be far better than any other team, and we thought parity in the NBA was dead. From what's happened so far in this NBA season, we were all wrong. Almost dead wrong. Parity is back, and it's coming from unexpected places.

    Of course, tomorrow the Lakers could go on a string of 30 straight wins, or Rashard Lewis' comeback could spur the Magic to greatness, or the Celtics could drink from the Phoenix Suns' fountain of youth and become the team they looked like during the season's first five games. Hell, maybe they'll all start to look like the teams we expected before the season.

    But for now, at least, parity is back. And it's actually been pretty fun.