Celtics-Magic preview: Howard the key in evenly-matched series

Howard will be fouled early and often by the Celtics.

The Celtics spoiled the much-anticipated Cavaliers-Magic rematch, setting up what could be an epic Eastern Conference semifinals featuring two teams playing at a very high level.

The fun begins Sunday at 3:30 EST on ABC.

After a long layoff, the Magic could be a bit rusty. Don’t be surprised if Boston rides the momentum gained in the Cleveland series to a Game 1 win. Both teams are very capable of winning on their opponents home court, making a six or seven game series a strong possibility.

Here is a closer look at matchups and subplots.

Guards

It’s all about Rajon Rondo. A fantastic series against the Cavs provided a showcase for his improved jump shot and ability to control a game. He has an edge against Jameer Nelson, who isn’t a strong defender. Nelson needs to be aggressive and make Rondo work on the defensive end. Unlike Mo Williams, Nelson isn’t afraid of the moment and will look to attack Rondo. Ray Allen and Matt Barnes will be a fun matchup to watch. Barnes enjoyed a strong finish to the season but is dealing with a back injury. The Magic have the advantage off the bench, with Mickael Pietrus, J.J. Redick, and Jason Williams. Tony Allen played well against LeBron James and should get some run against Vince Carter.

Advantage: Celtics

Forwards

The Old G matchup between Vince Carter and Paul Pierce will be important to watch as the series unfolds. Carter hasn’t shot the ball well in the postseason, but has still shown flashes of his amazing talent by getting to the rim. If he decides to take over the game, he can still do it. It’s not that simple for Pierce, who doesn’t look healthy. His jump shot has been off and he looks slower than ever. Don’t count him out, but he really played poorly against the Cavs. Kevin Garnett has an advantage in the post against Rashard Lewis, but don’t expect K.G. to enjoy chasing Lewis on the perimeter. The Celtics will most likely play a smaller lineup with Garnett at center for parts of the series. Glen Davis is the only bench player likely to have any impact at the forward position in the series, although Ryan Anderson could spark the magic with some 3’s here and there. The matchups suggest that good ole ‘Sheed won’t get a whole lot of run against the Magic.

Advantage: Magic–barely

Centers

Dwight Howard has a huge advantage against the Celtics. He is too quick for Kendrick Perkins, too big and too quick for Kevin Garnett, and much more athletic than Perkins, K.G., Big Baby, and ‘Sheed. He should dominate, but as always, he needs to stay out of foul trouble. Howard’s presence makes it difficult for Rajon Rondo to score around the basket, something he did at will against the Cavs. Marcin Gortat is a nice player and plays well if he gets minutes, which usually only happens if Superman is in foul trouble.

Advantage: Magic–big time

Coaching/Intangibles

It’s not too difficult to out-coach Mike Brown, but Doc Rivers did a great job against the Cavaliers. He managed his aging team, limiting minutes for Ray Allen and Garnett while getting the most out of Tony Allen and Davis. Stan Van Gundy is one of the better coaches in the NBA when it comes to exploiting matchups. The Celtics experience doesn’t really give them an edge against the savvy Magic. The choke-factor is pretty even–neither team is likely to cave under pressure.

Advantage: Draw

Subplots

-Injuries and age: Matt Barnes has a bad back. Kendrick Perkins has a bad knee. Paul Pierce is clearly not healthy, and Vince Carter is as soft as any NBA star. The Celtics are an old team and could have used some additional layoff. Fatigue won’t manifest itself until later in the series, but could be a factor, especially for Kevin Garnett’s ailing knee.

-Rajon Rondo: Superstar? Numbers are one thing, but utter dominance is another. Rondo dominated the Cavaliers, controlling the game and making numerous big shots. Another series like that and he will catapult up the ranks of NBA stars.

-Vince Carter: What’s my motivation? There is nothing more frustrating to NBA fans than players who don’t try. Enter Vince Carter, who has developed a beautiful stroke for the perimeter. Too bad the stroke doesn’t yield results. Carter is amazingly talented, and has the ability to post, get to the rim, and even run the offense at times. He also has the ability to score nine points on 3-of-9 shooting.

-Make it rain Ray Ray: The pressure is on Ray Allen to make 3-pointers, at least until Paul Pierce gets going. As of right now, Allen is the only reliable threat from downtown. Layups and dunks won’t come easily against the Magic, so the Celtics need to shoot well from the perimeter.

-The forgotten ones: Remember Nate Robinson? Sure you do. He could see some minutes in the series if Doc Rivers needs a spark and some shooting off the bench. Orlando’s Brandon Bass could get some time if Garnett abuses Rashard Lewis.

Prediction

So who wins? It tough to bet against the Celtics right now, but the Magic are have such a huge advantage with Dwight Howard inside. The scrappy C’s push the Magic to the brink, but lose in Game 7.

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