|Game 7: What to watch for||05.17.09 at 12:23 pm ET|
WALTHAM — Here are two things that have absolutely no bearing on tonight’s Game 7.
The Celtics’ franchise 17-3 record in home Game 7′s: Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Larry Bird aren’t walking through that door and if they are they’ll be sitting in the loge seats. Patrick Ewing’s prediction: As other have pointed out, Ewing’s prognosticating skills are about as solid as the guy at Suffolk Downs who plays a can’t miss hunch on the No. 7 horse in the third race.
But there are more than enough subplots to go around for tonight’s penultimate game between the Celtics and Magic. Here are five.
1. UNDER PRESSURE
Normally the home team carries the weight of expectations in a Game 7, but not tonight. The Magic clearly have the heaviest burden because their entire season is based on taking the proverbial next step and if they can’t do it against a beaten up and wounded Celtics team their season will have to be considered a disappointment. ESPN ran an online roundtable discussion and six of the seven writers said the Magic had the most to lose (specifically Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy), and five of the seven picked the Celtics to win. Until proven otherwise this is the Magic’s lot in life: They need to win, but no one expects them to.
Taking that next step can be the hardest in a team’s evolution. Some 20 years later the old Bad Boy Pistons still talk about getting past the Celtics as the most important step in their quest toward winning an NBA championship. Last year’s Celtics skipped the formalities, but they were a unique exception in that their three most important players entire careers had been about building toward that moment.
“That was one of the things we talked about before (last year),” Doc Rivers said after the team’s hour-long shootaround Sunday morning. “This is not a team that needs a test run to win it the following year. We were going to win it now and that’s what we did.”
Orlando has taken a more traditional approach, advancing to last year’s conference semifinals before getting worn down by the Pistons. This is the Magic’s time to either continue that progression or risk treading water.
Pressure has been a funny thing in this series. Orlando almost blew a huge lead in Game 1 and then it failed to close out a winnable game at home in Game 4. Add in the Magic’s Game 5 collapse and that seemed to validate every negative perception they carried into this series.
Then in Game 6 the Celtics were unable to close out the series in what was a very winnable game. That was either poor execution or a statement on the Magic’s resiliency. It’s striking that even after that performance, very few people believe they can win tonight.
2. IS TONIGHT THE NIGHT FOR RAY?
The Celtics don’t need a 50-point outburst from Ray Allen (although they would certainly take it). What they need are just a few makes. In a series that has been so close, a vintage Allen performance could be a tipping point. Consider that through six games both teams have taken 464 shots from the field. The Celtics have made 208 and the Magic have made 205. How different would this series be if Allen was making shots at just a 40 percent rate instead of 30-percent.
What makes Allen’s performance so frustrating is that he has had open looks at the basket, but he just hasn’t been able to cash in. True, the Magic’s defense has been solid against Allen (watch how much contact there is off the ball), but the shots that Allen has had are ones that he normally makes.
Allen isn’t the only shooter struggling in this series, just the most obvious. The Celtics are shooting just 29 percent from beyond the arc, while the Magic are throwing up long balls at a 30 percent clip.
“It always starts with good D, and then when you finally do get an open shot, you rush it because you think somebody’s coming,” Rivers said. “Clearly both teams have decided to try to take away the 3-point shot. You let it go so quick because you assume somebody’s coming. We talked about that (Saturday). Take the shot when it’s in your rhythm, and when it’s not in your rhythm, pass it out.”
3. WHO DO THE MAGIC RIDE DOWN THE STRETCH?
Orlando’s best player, Dwight Howard, does not have a reliable go-to move and is a major liability at the free throw line. For whatever reason, the Magic’s best scorer, Rashard Lewis, is not their preferred go-to option in the last five minutes.
The player on the spot for Orlando is Hedo Turkoglu, who has had his own Ray Allen-like struggles in this series, shooting just 41 percent from the floor and only 29 percent from 3-point range. Outside of Howard and Kendrick Perkins, Turkoglu and Paul Pierce have waged the most compelling individual matchup in this series and Pierce has come out ahead. Still, Turkoglu made the most important shot in Game 6 when his 3-pointer put Orlando up by six points and all but cinched the win.
As much as Howard has been in the cross-hairs throughout this series for reasons both real and self-inflicted, Turkoglu might be the most important Orlando player in the fourth quarter if the game is close.
The Celtics do not have any such worries. Pierce has nicely found his game just in time and as Allen’s 3-pointer in Game 5 and Glen Davis’ game-winner in Game 4 prove, the Celtics do not have any angst about late-game situations.
4. X-FACTORS: EDDIE HOUSE AND COURTNEY LEE
After House torched the Magic in Games 2 and 3, Van Gundy made a fateful decision to keep J.J. Redick in the starting lineup and use Courtney Lee as a cooler on House. Lee has been a much more productive player than Redick at both ends of the floor, but Van Gundy’s move has paid dividends. House was 17-for-21 in those two games and 7-for-8 from 3-point range, and since then he has shot 6-for-13 and attempted only two 3-pointers; both misses. (Which brings us back to Allen who hasn’t been able to exploit his matchup with Redick and force Van Gundy’s hand with Lee.)
Van Gundy has a deep and versatile bench to use tonight with Lee, Mickael Pietrus, Anthony Johnson, Tony Battie and Marcin Gortat all providing quality minutes at various times in the series. Rivers has shortened his rotation to just eight players with House, Brian Scalabrine and Stephon Marbury spelling the starters.
House doesn’t need to be brilliant tonight, but he does need to provide the second unit with a scoring lift. The Magic are +10 in second quarters in this series, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you consider that they are +11 for the entire series much of that can be attributed to a deeper bench.
5. THE HOMECOURT ADVANTAGE
The single biggest thing the Celtics have going for themselvs tonight is homecourt. They earned it by pushing forward without Kevin Garnett in the final weeks of the season while the Magic took a step backward. Those last few weeks serve as a microcosm of both team’s seasons. The Celtics responded when their backs were against the wall, while the Magic let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers.
“We’re not the same team that earned it, with the injuries we had,” Rivers said. “But we played better over the year and that’s why you get homecourt. The crowd helps, there’s no doubt about that. I don’t know if it hurts the road team, but it definitely helps the home team.”
There aren’t too many people who would give either Boston or Orlando much of a chance in the conference finals against Cleveland, but that’s a discussion better left for tomorrow. Tonight is about making somebody’s season. It’s a test of the Celtics resiliency against the Magic’s maturity.
One final note: Your officials tonight are Steve Javie, Scott Foster and Derrick Stafford. Foster is only one of the three who worked a Celtics-Magic game. He had Game 3, which Orlando won 117-96.
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