Whenever the Orlando Magic and the Boston Celtics take the court to face each other, as they will this evening, basketball fans take note. But tonight, it'll be a matchup of two underachieving teams. Orlando has lost 9 of 16 games since meeting Boston on Christmas Day, including losses to Indiana, Chicago, Washington, and undermanned Portland. Meanwhile, Boston's dropped 7 of 13, including consecutive road defeats to the L.A. Clippers, Golden State, and Phoenix, as well as a more recent loss to Detroit. Neither team is playing its best ball, yet both remain among the league's elite, perhaps based on reputation alone.
|2009/2010 NBA Season|
|January 28th, 2010|
|Rajon Rondo||PG||Jameer Nelson|
|Ray Allen||SG||Vince Carter|
|Paul Pierce||SF||Matt Barnes|
|Kevin Garnett||PF||Rashard Lewis|
|Kendrick Perkins||C||Dwight Howard|
|November 20th: Magic 83, Celtics 78|
|December 25th: Celtics 86, Magic 77|
I'm honestly not sure what to expect from the Magic tonight. They once again blew a big lead on the road in their most recent game when they ignored Dwight Howard in the low-post, preferring instead to take ill-advised three-pointers. Howard responded by demanding the ball more often, while coach Stan Van Gundy urges his players to move the ball more and look for Howard inside. The issue tonight, as Van Gundy explained after practice yesterday, is that "there's not a better low-post defensive team in the league than Boston." The best way for Howard to score against the Celtics is via the offensive rebound, because he struggles to create his own shot against Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace. So tonight's probably not the best night for the Magic to run more post-ups for Howard. In fact, it might be the worst possible night for that.
The Celtics sometimes allow role-players like the Clippers' Craig Smith to get the best of them offensively, a problem they exacerbate by not adjusting. Maybe Mickael Pietrus or Matt Barnes can get it going? But, if you ask me, Vince Carter will have to carry the Magic tonight. He had success running the side pick-and-roll with Howard against Boston on Christmas, as Wallace and Perkins struggled to contain him on the drive, and he managed to get some acrobatic layups to drop. Hitting Howard on the roll is a tough task against Boston, which walls off the paint in those situations to simultaneously discourage the pass apply more pressure to the ballhandler.
Paul Pierce is arguably the key to Boston's offense; I'm willing to listen to cases for point guard Rajon Rondo, who's among the league's best passers. Pierce draws a ton of fouls, hits the mid-range jumper with consistency, and is lights-out from beyond the arc. Pierce has connected on an otherworldly 47% of his three-pointers this season, on roughly 4 attempts per game. Pietrus and Barnes must stick with him. Eddie House (36.7%) and Ray Allen (34.5%) are also deep threats, but both are shooting worse than their career averages this season, with Allen shooting a career-worst.
Another guy to watch offensively? Perkins, and I'm not kidding. He leads the league in field-goal percentage, and it's not all a function of offensive rebounds and put-backs: teammates have assisted on 70.3% of his baskets, according to Hoopdata.com, and he has a surprisingly refined array of low-post maneuvers. His tendency to turn the ball over--usually via a travel or moving screen--undermines his efficiency, but make no mistake. The man can score, and it's enough to make me wonder where Howard might be offensively had the Magic retained Celtics big-man coach Clifford Ray. And I'm a bit worried about Perkins because Howard sometimes roams to block shots, which leaves his man open for a dump-off pass or offensive rebound.
The game tips at 8. For a good laugh, check out this photo of Wallace and Pierce in some goofy costumes.