The absence of Kevin Garnett will finally catch up to the Celtics on Sunday when Dwight Howard and the Magic win Game 7 of their conference semifinal series in Boston.
The Celtics are coming off of a series for the ages vs. the upstart Chicago Bulls, prevailing in seven games with four of the games going into overtime. Now, they must cope with a talented Orlando Magic team.
Orlando is coming off of a relatively mundane six-game series vs. the Philadelphia 76ers, but you can bet that they will bring their top effort here, and they are certainly great investments as underdogs in this series.
Critics may scoff at the fact that they lost two games to the Sixers including Game 1 at home, and they narrowly escaped in a three-point win in Game 4. However, the fact remains that they found a way to win when their backs were against the wall, and their defense suffocated Philadelphia throughout the series after Game 1, allowing a miniscule 86.2 points per game over the last five games.
Now defense was the main reason the Celtics won the NBA Championship last season, but that unit was alarmingly bad for most of the Chicago series, and the fact that they have just one day off between Game 7 of that series and Game 1 of this one does not give them much time to make adjustments. Boston allowed 108.3 points per game to the Bulls, and while we realize that figure was aided by all of the overtimes, the Bulls were still in the 90s in regulation in most of the games.
Looking at the year-to-date numbers, the Celtics are allowing slightly fewer points per game than Orlando (93.4 to 94.4), the Magic have the defensive edge in a couple of key categories. The Magic are allowing 1.02 point per possession compared to a 1.03 defensive PPP for Boston, which is a negligible difference, but the Magic are also holding opponents to en effective field goal percentage of 46.6 percent, compared to a 47.0 defensive eFG percentage for the Celtics.
It has been proven time and again that defense wins championships, and while the Celtics have the greater reputation, the fact is that Orlando has been playing some of the best defense in the NBA for over a month now.
In fact, since March 10, the Magic are allowing 90.8 points per game, and you should shave a few points off of that average as they allowed over 100 points twice in the final week of the regular season after their playoff seed was already determined. By comparison, Boston is allowed 99.8 points per game over this same time span.
Looking at the regular season series, these teams split their four games with each team winning once on the other team’s floor. Keep in mind however that Kevin Garnett is now out for the Celtics, and that makes all the difference in the world, especially when you consider how short the Boston bench is.
This is definitely not the same Boston team as last year, as Garnett is one of the best defenders in the league and the Boston defense last season would not have allowed as many easy penetration drive to the Bulls as this one did.
Now it should be pointed out that the Magic are without the injured Jameer Nelson, but unlike the Celtics after the lost Garnett, the Magic did not slip noticeably after the lost a key player. In fact, a case can be made that Orlando became a better defensive club after Nelson went down. Of course, at helps having Dwight Howard swatting away any shot a few feet from the basket regardless of who the point guard is.
Honestly, although the Celtics are the higher seed, we are actually a bit surprised that Boston is favored to win the series (currently -115 at 5 Dimes), especially with such a short turnaround after that emotional series with the Bulls. We simply feel that the Magic are the better team with the better defense sans Garnett here, and if the Bulls can steal a game in Boston, we see no reason why the Magic cannot do the same.
In fact, we look for that road win for Orlando to come in one of the first two games, similar to Chicago (who won Game 1). The difference though is that we do not expect the Magic to give home court advantage right back the way the Bulls did.
Prediction: Magic in 6