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.
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.