Orlando Magic / Boston Celtics Eastern Conference Finals Preview

Here's a very quickly put-together preview of the Orlando Magic's upcoming Eastern Conference Finals series against the Boston Celtics. As I noted when the pairing became official, Orlando's 3-1 series lead belies how closely these teams played; the Magic held a scant, 5-point advantage over the entire four games. John Schuhmann of NBA.com put it another way: the average score in the season-series was 88-87 in Orlando's favor.

As I did with the Atlanta Hawks series preview, I'll compare the teams' head-to-head Four Factors stats to their season averages, and go from there. 3 data tables and 632 words' worth of analysis follow the jump.

Team Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Celtics 97.3 45.0% 19.6 24.3 16.8
Magic 98.7 46.3% 29.2 24.4 19.6
Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.

A few things stand out here. For one, these teams know each other quite well, and their defenses are locked in. While they're roughly even in terms of shooting and offensive rebounding, each team has an edge in one of the remaining two categories. For Orlando, it's a stunning number of free-throw chances; for Boston, it's forcing the Magic to turn the ball over approximately once every 5 trips down the floor. The season-series was closely contested, and the Conference Finals should be the same way.

Individually, more to consider: Dwight Howard shot just 46.9% against Boston (3rd-worst against any opponent) and scored 12.3 points per game (4th-worst); Andrew Melnick has more on that angle here. Vince Carter needed 83 shooting possessions to score 79 points, and converted only 7 of his 17 shots at the rim (41.2%). Jameer Nelson shot 41.9% from the field and 12.5% from three-point range. But if you're looking for a bright spot, it's Rashard Lewis, and not just because he blew by Kevin Garnett for the game-winning layup on January 28th. Against Boston, he averaged 18 points per game (6th-best) and shot 47.4% from beyond the arc (7th). He needs to maintain that stellar play. And Nelson, who's been on a tear in these playoffs, needs to skew closer to that than to his regular-season against Boston.

But back to a team-wide focus. There are some very interesting dynamics that take place from quarter to quarter, as you can see.

Team Quarter
1st 2nd 3rd 4th Total
Celtics 89 91 74 93 347
Magic 94 56 106 96 352
Difference +5 -35 +32 +3 +5

One way to look at it is that the teams played evenly after the first quarter. A more relevant way to look at it is that Boston consistently owns the second, while Orlando seems to rally in the third. Those differences aren't skewed by just a few bad quarters, either; the Magic lost three of the four second quarters in this series, and tied the other. The same holds true for the Celtics in the third, losing three outright while tying the other. In a way, I think this bodes well for the Magic. Those second-quarter letdowns came with the second unit in the game. In the playoffs, coach Stan Van Gundy has relied on his starters more. Thus, in this series, the Magic's second-quarter play should improve.

While we're speaking of lineups, the Magic's top unit of Nelson, Carter, Matt Barnes, Lewis, and Howard has fared well against the Celtics, with an offensive rating of 105.17 and a defensive rating of 92.86. The bad news on that front is that it's actually a net loss against Boston's top lineup of Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Garnett, and Kendrick Perkins, scoring an even 100 points per 100 possessions while allowing 104.65. But in the fourth quarters, Van Gundy has gone with Mickael Pietrus instead of Barnes at small forward. If that holds true in this series--and I'm not sure why it wouldn't, as Pietrus is still Van Gundy's best perimeter defender--well, there's no real way to tell. That fivesome, with Pietrus instead of Barnes, hasn't matched up with the Celtics' starters.

I'm wondering now if Van Gundy might have a trick or two up his sleeve in this series. He rarely plays Howard alongside Marcin Gortat because of the problems it causes for his offense, as having two guys who can't shoot outside the paint mucks the whole scheme up. But in 10.87 minutes against the Celtics this season, the Magic smoked Boston with those two together, with 30 points on 16 possessions. Boston was no slouch itself, with 22 points on 19 possessions, but that's still a tremendous advantage: 71.7 points over 100 possessions, in fact. And that group controlled the glass, grabbing 11 rebounds in 16 chances for an impressive 68.8% overall rebounding rate.

Box score stats from HoopData.com also provide some insight. More head-to-head stats for the two teams, sorted by shot location:

Team Shot Location
Rim 10-15 16-23 3FG FT
Celtics 47/97
(48.5%)
23/43
(53.5%)
16/31
(51.6%)
22/70
(31.4%)
23/76
(45.4 eFG%)
62/83
(74.7%)
Magic 39/76
(51.3%)
16/44
(36.4%)
13/28
(46.4%)
18/50
(36.0%)
32/90
(53.3 eFG%)
84/119
(70.6%)
Difference
(Attempts)
-21 +1 -3 -20 +14 +36
Difference
(Points)
-16 -14 -6 -8 +27 +22

Boston's going to make its hay from 15 feet and inside. From 16 feet and beyond, the Celtics have scored 113 points on a whopping 146 shooting possessions, and that figure includes the Celtics' 12-of-26 showing from three-point range on January 28th. The Magic have shut down the Celtics' perimeter offense, save for Ray Allen; he's 8-of-20 from three-point range against the Magic this year, while his teammates are 15-of-56. For Orlando to continue its success, it must continue to force Boston to take long jump shots. Denying Rondo's dribble-penetration has proven difficult, and stopping the fast break all but impossible, so the Magic must really lock down in the half court defensively.

On its own end, Orlando has countered with a much stronger three-point attack and, as mentioned earlier, dominance at the foul line. It's made one more free throw than Boston's even attempted. That's not an accident. Boston has the league's 5th-most efficient overall defense, yet is just 25th in free throw ratio allowed. In other words, the Celtics struggle to defend without fouling, which is something Orlando should look to exploit. Howard will get his chances at the line, because Boston believes in wrapping him up before he gets a chance to score, so he's a given. But Carter, Nelson, and Lewis? They need to be on the attack. The foul problem is a rare hole in Boston's defensive armor.

Forgive the cop-out, but it's tough to get a read on this series. Orlando is the league's hottest team and has rolled though the first 2 rounds, yet Boston is equally dangerous in that it just finished off the team with the league's best record by winning the final 3 games if its series by a combined 51 points. Consider those factors in conjunction with how close the two teams played in the regular season, and you've got what looks to be a series that will go the distance.

My gut reaction is to say that rest and matchups skew ever so slightly in Orlando's favor, and to pick the Magic in 6 games or 7. If pressed to pick an exact number, I'd say 6, but in a very close series. Last year's conference finals, for instance, saw the Magic oust the Cavaliers in 6 games, but with a tiny +15 differential. Don't be surprised if a similar number separates the Magic and the Celtics in this series as well.

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