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Tonight's Game: Boston Celtics at Orlando Magic

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2008/2009 NBA Regular Season
Boston Celtics main logo
@
Orlando Magic main logo
35-9 33-8
January 22nd, 2009
Amway Arena
8:00 PM
TNT
Probable starters:
Rajon Rondo PG Jameer Nelson
Ray Allen SG Courtney Lee
Paul Pierce SF Hedo Turkoglu
Kevin Garnett PF Rashard Lewis
Kendrick Perkins C Dwight Howard
Previous Meetings:
December 1st: Celtics 107, Magic 88

Orlando Magic vs. Boston Celtics. There, I just explained why you should watch this game. But if you need more convincing, Brian Schmitz has ten reasons why this game matters big-time.

I usually wait until after the Magic's opponent finishes playing its most recent game to write these previews, but I went ahead and pencilled the Celtics' record at 35-9 when I saw they led the Miami Heat, 29-10, at the end of the first quarter last night. The media would have you believe that the Celtics were in a tailspin, as they went through a 2-7 stretch. Well, the reports of Boston's death have been greatly exaggerated.

We're lucky enough to have not one, but two Celtics bloggers on board for today's pregame q-and-a. Zach Lowe of Be The Three and Steve Weinman of CelticsBlog graciously spent some time answering the questions I had about the defending champs. Make the jump to read their responses.

Go Magic.

Third Quarter Collapse: A sentiment a lot of Celtics fans express is that Rajon Rondo is the player who makes this team go. What makes him the difference-maker?

Be The Three: The difference between aggressive Rondo and deer-in-the-headlights Rondo may be the largest of any player in the league. When he's going at the rim, looking to score and hitting his jumper without thinking too much about it, he's a legitimately great offensive player. When he's hesitant and barely glancing at the rim, defenses can guard him almost like he's Ben Wallace. When he's on, the offense just flows more easily; it doesn't devolve into Pierce working hard to free himself for a jump shot (or driving into the lane and falling down), Allen sprinting around screens in desperate hope for an open three or KG tossing up a 20-footer with the shot clock running down. Rondo gets open looks for everyone, and he can use his defense to get the C's going in transition. The Celtics defense is going to be there every night. When the offense plays at its highest level, the C's are a very tough team to beat. And that depends on Rondo more than anyone else, since the Big 3 are consistent. And for the record, Rondo hit 50 percent of his two-point jumpers in the playoffs last season; he's hitting just 28 percent this year. Improving that stat may be the key to Boston's season.

CelticsBlog: When Rondo is playing confident and aggressive basketball, his speed and ability to push the ball adds a dimension to the Celtics' offense. He has the physical traits required to break down nearly any opposing point guard in the league, and his ability to finish around the rim forces defenses to react to him inside. He is also gifted with a great ability to see the floor, and when he draws help defenders to him, it only makes it easier for him to find one of his teammates. That three of his four fellow starters are perennial All-Stars makes the proposition of sending help at him that much less enticing for opposing defenses, and that leads to Rondo getting his share of lay-ups once he beats his man. When he gets going offensively, he gives this offense four major scoring threats, and center Kendrick Perkins has only improved from a season ago to boot.

On the flip-side, part of the reason we see Raj as a difference-maker is because we've seen our share of nights where he hasn't had his best stuff. While he has canned a couple of jumpers over the past week, his reputation as an awful jump shooter justifiably remains intact, and he has had a couple of nights (namely the Cleveland game) where he seems to have lost his confidence not just from the outside but around the basket as well. During the Celtics' 2-7 stretch around the turn of the calendar, a couple of teams (namely the Lakers and Knicks) put bigger players on Rondo (Kobe, Jared Jeffries) in hopes of forcing him to the outside, which they did. The fact remains that if you turn Rajon into a jump shooter, you do yourself a great service toward stopping the Celtics.

That isn't to say that the Celts can't win if Rondo isn't on his 'A' game - they've got plenty of firepower. But when they are getting him the ball off the glass, and he is pushing it with confidence, they become very tough to stop. And Raj seems to really get up for matching up with big-name point guards around the league. Over the past week and change, he has played three of his best games of the year, embarrassing Devin Harris twice and outplaying Steve Nash as well.

One more Rondo note that I feel worth mentioning whenever I get asked about him: I'm not as sold about his individual defense as his national reputation might suggest. Raj is a fantastic team defender in the sense that he has freakishly long arms, great hands and quickness, and his instincts are excellent - he jumps passing lanes well, gets more than his share of deflections, nabs a few weak-side steals from time to time and is generally a very good gambler. I think, however, that this occasionally comes at the expense of focusing on simply stopping his own man from beating him to the rim. For instance, Roko Ukic repeatedly beating him to the rim in an overtime game with Toronto last week was a bit unettling. That said, this is not Rondo-bashing by any means. He is 22 years old and in his third year in the league, and his defense overall is quite good. But there is always room for improvement, and I would really be impressed if he ups his level of individual defensive play. Perhaps it is nitpicking, and I'm thrilled to have him as my team's point guard of the future.

Third Quarter Collapse: The Celtics have played much better with Brian Scalabrine, of all people, starting at center. Is this a coincidental consequence of the team being motivated to play smarter after a 2-7 stretch, or is Scal really contributing as a starter?

Be The Three: It's a coincidence. Scal's played more than 20 minutes just six times this season, including the last five games (all wins), where he's started at center in place of Perkins. But those wins have come against New Jersey (twice), Toronto (twice) and Phoenix on the second night of a back-to-back. Give Scal credit--he hustles, he contests jump shooters and he's working hard to be in the right place on defense. That was especially true on Monday, when he was the primary defender in holding Amare Stoudemire to three measly points and seemed to beat Amare to every spot on the floor STAT wanted to go. And he can hit an open three at a not-horrible clip (34 percent this season). But he's still Brian Scalabrine, with a PER around 7 and a game best suited to very limited minutes (if any) during big-time playoff games.

CelticsBlog: Yes and yes. This is not the .930 team that its record said it was through late December, and it isn't the .222 team that the next nine games might have indicated. I believe that the combination of the Cleveland game as a wake-up call and the upcoming schedule thereafter would have resulted in this team getting back on track around the time it did no matter who was at center, and I don't think the Celtics won their next five because Kendrick Perkins was out of the lineup.

That said, Scal's play has been a joy to watch of late. Scal and the issues surrounding the semi-mocking, semi-maybe-not-so-mocking chants of his name at the New Garden have long polarized Celts fans. In the past, you could label me firmly on the wagon of those who felt his supposed intangible contributions were overrated. I got the impression that merely because he didn't do anything that showed up well in the box score, he got credit for harder-to-disprove assets as "understanding the system" and rotating well defensively.

This season, even prior to his run as a starter, I've increasingly felt that he has done those things for this team. His individual and help defense has been impressive. He still isn't knocking down his open looks at quite as high a clip as we might like, but he hasnt been a liability at that end either. He has always carried himself as a professonal and been a good teammate. Perk returned to the lineup last night in Miami, but the guess here is that Scal will continue to play an expanded role in the rotation from here on out, albeit perhaps more on the wings than down low.

Third Quarter Collapse: Assuming Kevin Garnett remains in the starting lineup for this year's All-Star game, which Celtics (if any) deserve to join him in Phoenix as a reserve? I'd like to note for the record that Paul Pierce's statistics are nearly identical to Rashard Lewis'.

Be The Three: I could easily argue that both Ray Allen and Paul Pierce deserve to go (yes, over Rashard Lewis), but you could easily counter that neither deserves to go. I started by listing nine guys I considered automatic All-Stars: The five likely starters (LeBron, Wade, Iverson, Howard and Garnett) and four reserves that have cinched bids (Granger, Bosh, Devin Harris and the mandatory back-up center). That leaves three spots for a group of forwards and centers that includes the following: Allen, Pierce, Lewis, Joe Johnson, Vince Carter, Rondo, Jameer Nelson (see how generous I am?), Caron Butler, Andre Iguodala and probably someone I'm forgetting. Of the three we pick, one has to be a guard, since we haven't filled our quota of two reserve guards yet.

Gun to my head, I think you have to give the last mandatory guard spot to Allen. I just can't ignore the 63.5 percent true shooting percentage or the consistency he's brought the offense after last season, when injury kept him from playing up to his normal level.

As for the last two, I'll cut Rondo (inconsistent), Butler (ditto, not the same player as last season), Lewis (sorry) and Iguodala (not quite an All-Star). That leaves Vince, Nelson, Joe Johnson and Pierce for two spots. And if you don't think I'm going to argue that Pierce is the best of those four players, then you haven't met me (and, actually, you haven't). He has more end-of-game responsibility than any of those guys (though Nelson is has had some big fourth quarters lately), and he's probably the best defensive player in the group. He and Lewis have similar numbers, yes, but I'm pretty confident any GM in the league would take Pierce over Lewis in a big game.

As for the last spot, why not Jameer Nelson? His PER is 21, his true shooting percentage is over 60 and he has been killing it for the last month. So there--we can all be happy, right?

CelticsBlog: This is a tough one, especially because I've become increasingly disinterested with the All-Star Game over the past few seasons. No Celtics in Phoenix would be wonderful, because all of these guys could probably use the rest. But as for who is deserving, I'll go with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce in addition to KG.

Allen is scoring a shade below 18 points per game, which is no doubt a step down from figures from earlier in his career, but he is also taking just 12.7 field goal attempts per game (fewest since his rookie year). He is getting his points on an insane 63.5 percent true shooting, which ranks him seventh in the league and first among guards. He shouldn't be penalized for volume scoring because he plays on a team with multiple stars, and his improved shooting from this time a season ago is one of the biggest reasons the Celtics have gotten off to as good a start as they have this season.

As for Pierce, wow, I hadn't looked at his stats next to Rashard's - they are eerily close across the board. That said, Pierce has continued from last year so far as playing some of the best defense of his career is concerned. That has been a breath of fresh air with him since the beginning of the KG era, and it has helped him become a more complete player and better leader on this team. I haven't watched Lewis quite closely enough to discern how he compares here, and I haven't thought enough about All-Star rosters to know whether there might be room for both players. But I support Pierce having earned the right to be there (and I should mention that he has also broken out the cape for a few old-fashioned Superman fourth-quarter performances, which are always mesmerizing).

As mentioned above, I've been mostly thrilled by Rajon Rondo, and he is in the discussion, but I think he gets squeezed out. Despite the fact that he outplayed Devin Harris twice last week, Harris' body of work on the season earns him a spot, and Jameer Nelson has been great. Those two at the very least get the nod ahead of Raj at this point.

Third Quarter Collapse: There's a perception that Boston has a weak bench, which may hurt it in the playoffs. Is that assessment fair?

Be The Three: It's a legitimate worry, but one most teams have. Almost every team, save maybe the Lakers, would like to improve its bench--it's like the bullpen in baseball. Last year, the bench really only had one player (Leon Powe) who could create his own shot or draw a foul without much help; the same is true this year. But there are reasons to worry. First no one on the second unit has improved, something the front office was counting on when they let James Posey sign with New Orleans. Tony Allen has been almost decent (a PER of 12.0 compared to 13.7 for Posey this season), but he can't stay healthy and he is, frankly, a bad offensive player. He's a poor jump-shooter (27 percent, according to 82games), and his turnover rate is the worst among the C's regulars. He hasn't shown he can replace Posey. Eddie House is shooting a few ticks worse this season, and Big Baby Davis has gone from a power forward last season (67 percent of his shots were from in close, and he got to the line a lot) to an ineffective jump-shooter this season (63 percent of his shots are jumpers, and he's hitting fewer than 30 percent of them).

In other words, the bench is having problems scoring points. Last year, Posey and P.J. Brown could at least hit open jumpers. Will this hurt them in playoffs? Probably. A long scoring drought in or two key games can end a season.

CelticsBlog: Absolutely. We fans love to complain that the national media doesn't understand the special dynamics of our particular team, that our boys are being misjudged and so on (Magic fans know this feeling, I'm sure). But in this case, the pundits have it pegged so far: The bench has blown leads and been inconsistent in every facet of the game. There isn't a whole lot of length in the frontcourt, and there are still questions about ball-handling, though it's my contention that this team will can be successful with Eddie House and Gabe Pruitt there, especially if the latter continues to get opportunities in the rotation (and Sam Cassell is around in reserve). The wing play is frustrating, especially because a) we lost a wonderful reserve wing in Big Game James Posey this summer and b) no matter how healthy Tony Allen's knees and ankles get, his biggest concern may always be his head, and we haven't seen many signs of that improving. I'm one of many green fanatics enthused about Bill Walker's future prospects, and it's been fun to see him get some garbage time run of late, but I don't know that he'll get the opportunities or prove himself ready to be a contributor when it matters this season.

I'm not saying that the team can't win with this bench or that any particular change has to be made. The improved play of Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Kendrick Perkins from a season ago have been big factors in helping this team overcome some of its second unit problems. But whereas last year's bench was a strength of this team (especially in the playoffs, when P.J. Brown was around), losing Posey and Brown without obtaining adequate replacements has hurt. Just how much remains to be seen.

Third Quarter Collapse: Which team would you rather the Celtics avoid in the playoffs, if possible?

Be The Three: I'm going to assume you mean in the first round, since after that, the East gets really strong right away. (Even the top seed, who will likely play Atlanta in Round 2, is not getting a walkover there). The 6-7-8 seeds in the East will likely be Philly, Miami and one of the garbage pile of New Jersey/Milwaukee/New York/Chicago. Of all those teams, Philly is the one that frightens me. The Celtics have no problems with Miami, but Philly...when they get those young legs running and force teams to play outside their half-court defensive comfort zone, they can be very effective. I could see them riding an '07 Golden State/'08 Hawks kind of vibe, gelling at the right time and getting a loud home crowd behind them. The Celtics are a better team, but there are lot of miles on some of those legs.The key, obviously, will be if Philly finds a way to play their style with Brand in the lineup.

By the way, how fun is the race for the top seed going to be? It's worth going all-out for, since it means getting a cake walk in the first round followed by Atlanta or Detroit in round two instead of one of the other top three teams.

CelticsBlog: Sorry, Ben Q, but I have to go with the team that has the planet's finest active player here. The story I've told a few times is the conversation I've had with good friend and Columbia Missourian hoops reporter Bill Powell before the conference semis last year. Bill said something to the effect of "If all he has to do is beat your team four times out of seven tries, I wouldn't feel too good about this if I were you."

Consider that for a second. Normally, we talk about being wary that a specific player could go out and take over a single game. Granted, Bill said it with a smile, but he was only somewhat-kidding. The idea that this one could go out and take care of a 66-win team not merely in a single game but over the course of a series is terrifying. And he almost did.

Further, regardless of what the case may have been at times during the last two seasons, there is no longer a case that this is just LeBron versus the Cavs' opponents. Danny Ferry has put a cast around LeBron that Mike Brown has been able to mold into a group where eveyrone plays a role, from stretching the floor from the perimeter (Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, Daniel Gibson) to crashing the offensive glass (Anderson Varejao, Ben Wallace), to serving as the primary non-LBJ offensive options (Big Z, Mo Williams). And everyone on Brown's team plays defense. They sit third in the league in offensive efficiency and second on defense, and they've got the league's best player. The Magic continue to get more dangerous by the day, but the Cavs remain the biggest threat in my eyes to the Celts' defense of the title.

Thanks once again to Zach Lowe and Steve Weinman for their insight.