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Preview: Celtics-Magic

01.28.10 at 10:31 am ET

During the course of a long season it is customary for players and coaches to downplay significant games on the schedule. In the matter of the Celtics‘ three-game stretch that begins tonight in Orlando, continues Friday in Atlanta and concludes back home on Sunday against the Lakers, a curious thing has happened. Everyone connected with the Celtics seems to view these games as meaningful and important.

“We understand that these are three great games to be able to play,” Doc Rivers said Wednesday on Dennis & Callahan. “Coaches look forward to them and players look forward to them as well. Once they’€™re over then they become one of the 82. There’€™s no doubt that players look forward to them.”

Danny Ainge also acknowledged their importance. “I think it will tell us a lot about our depth, our conditioning and the quality of our play right now,” he said on The Big Show.

Each game has its own personality. The Magic offer the most compelling 1-through-5 matchups, while the Hawks present their in-season mastery of the Celtics as a hurdle to climb. The Lakers provide their own drama, of course. This is not a make-or-break stretch for the Celtics by any means, but it will reveal something about who they are and where they are going.

CELTICS (29-13, 5-5 last 10)

Points Per Game: 99.7

Points Allowed: 93.7

Differential: +6.0 (3rd)

Offensive Efficiency: 107.9 (13th)

Defensive Efficiency: 101.4 (1st)

Pace: 91.7 (22nd)

Likely Starters: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins

Injuries: Marquis Daniels (thumb), Brian Scalabrine (shoulder)

MAGIC (29-16, 505 last 10)

Points Per Game: 101.1

Points Allowed: 96.3

Differential: +4.8 (7th)

Offensive Efficiency: 108.4 (11th)

Defensive Efficiency: 103.2 (5th)

Pace: 93.1 (12th)

Likely Starters: Jameer Nelson, Matt Barnes, Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Dwight Howard

Injuries: None

Key Matchup: Kevin Garnett vs. Rashard Lewis

Time and again Garnett has identified Lewis as one of the toughest covers in the league. Lewis lives behind the 3-point line, where he averages better than six attempts per game, but he also is adept at going down on the block and posting up. His career took off once he moved to the 4 spot, where he found himself matched up with slower, less-agile defenders. Garnett, meanwhile, turns the entire positional argument on its head with his ability to defend the post and also guard on the perimeter.

The Celtics in a Paragraph: The All-Star team will be announced during the TNT broadcast (click here for our picks), and Rajon Rondo should finally be accepted into that exclusive club. Make no mistake, this is a big deal to the point guard. More than anything, Rondo hungers for respect on his own terms, and an All-Star nod would help validate him for the rest of the league. It is not lost on him that Jameer Nelson earned the trip last season at his expense. Look for Rondo to have a big night no matter how the selections turn out.

The Magic in a Paragraph: There is not a deeper team in the league than Orlando. Depth obviously has its benefits, but with so many qualified players, coach Stan Van Gundy has had to juggle egos, shots and playing time. In an interesting twist, players such as Matt Barnes and Ryan Anderson have emerged as big-time contributors, while more heralded free agents Brandon Bass and Marcin Gortat have struggled to find playing time. Van Gundy is one of the best coaches in the league, but the pressure will be on him to make this loaded, but unwieldy, roster click.

What to Watch For: No one in the league plays Dwight Howard as well as Kendrick Perkins. The Celtics are comfortable leaving Perkins to play Howard with no help down on the block, which puts a crimp in Orlando’s post and kick game. In order for this strategy to work, Perkins has to stay out of early foul trouble. Fortunately for the Celtics, they also have Rasheed Wallace to throw at Howard. While Perkins does his work with his size and strength, Wallace is adept at frustrating Howard with his bag of veteran tricks. The Celtics have proven they can handle Howard. The question for the league’s best center is: How will he respond?

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