The Boston Celtics believe they’re the best team in basketball.
That doesn’t really make them any different than any of the other teams left in the playoffs, save the Phoenix Suns (The Phoenix Suns: our NBA Playoffs Mickey and Mallory). But one thing they do know in the back of their heads is that a fully-rested, disciplined, ready Orlando Magic team against a worn-out, exhausted, punch-drunk Boston Celtics team is not a scenario they want.
Which is why the Celtics have no choice.
They must win Game 6 tonight to close out this series.
Understand that the Celtics still don’t consider the Magic a “real” threat. Not even after the Magic dumped them from the playoffs last year, in their own home in a Game 7, nor after the Magic won their season series 3-1. Paul Pierce during the Finals last year referred to the Magic as poodles while the Celtics were “rottweilers” and the Celtics feel that if Kevin Garnett had been healthy, Boston would not have fallen.
But one thing they do know, they are physically limited by the wear and tear of age, and need the four days of rest that would meet them were they to win tonight.
The Magic killed the Celtics last year not necessarily through exploitation of their legs in some run and gun system, but by maximizing the floor space and putting the Celtics in situations where they were forced to desperately try and recover from one side of the floor to the other. Combine that with Rashard Lewis’ ability to stretch the floor at the four spot and Dwight Howard wreaking more and more havoc as the series went on, and you had a recipe for disaster that the Celtics still almost climbed out of.
But there are many reasons to believe an ECF between the two would go differently. Kevin Garnett has the range to guard Lewis much better, Rajon Rondo is even more of a force, they have a few younger bodies to use as perimeter defenders, and Kendrick Perkins still has reason to believe he can hold down Howard.
What the Celtics can’t afford is to get off on the wrong foot.
Consider, in 2008, when the Hornets pushed the San Antonio Spurs to the brink, forcing a Game 7 in New Orleans, which the Spurs won. Then, after a plane malfunction, the Spurs wound up not leaving the airport until very early in the morning, causing their schedules to be wrecked. They were blasted in Game 1 versus the Lakers. Don’t be confused, the Lakers were the better team that year. But you still can’t afford to put an old team at a physical disadvantage. And having to play a Game 7 in Cleveland would put more miles on this team, worsening whatever lingering injuries they may have, and risking getting off on the wrong foot against the Magic.
Do that, and the Magic will sweep your legs out from under you.
The Magic are playing the best basketball of any team coming into the Conference Finals, regardless of how the Boston-Cleveland series finishes. But the Celtics definitely have the ability to overcome that play with their defense and versatility. They will, however, need to have time to develop a gameplan, and to get their bodies and minds right.
Because if there’s one thing we know for certain, it’s that the Magic will be ready. Boston must close out Cleveland tonight.