For the last three years, the Celtics  have kept one eye the Magic and the other on the Lakers. Truth be told, the Celtics always saw Orlando as their prime challenger in the Eastern Conference and that bore out in two rugged playoff series.
The 2009 Celtics took the Magic to seven games without Kevin Garnett . They were undone ultimately by Garnett’s injury, but also by a lack of size up front behind Kendrick Perkins . So, they went out and signed Rasheed Wallace . Say what you want about Sheed’s time in Boston, but he was a difference-maker last year against Orlando when the Celtics won in six games.
For their part, the Magic cut ties with Hedo Turkoglu  and brought in Vince Carter  to replace him. Carter was supposed to be able to create offense from the wing, especially against a team like the Celtics who were able to play Dwight Howard  straight up, effectively negating their double-team kickout for open 3-pointers.
Unfortunately for the Magic, it didn’t work as planned and with the Celtics gathering strength and the Heat on the rise, Orlando general manager Otis Smith elected for the big shake-up, trading Carter, Marcin Gortat, Mickael Pietrus , Rashard Lewis, a draft pick and cash in exchange for Jason Richardson , Gilbert Arenas , Earl Clark and Turkoglu.
The moves leave the Magic with an upgrade at the 2-guard spot (Richardson is simply much better than Carter at this stage of their careers) and woefully thin up front behind Howard. They also brought in two high-stakes gambles in Turkoglu and Arenas, who will either recapture part of their glory days or definitively prove that they are past their primes.
The results so far have been mixed. The Magic dropped games to Atlanta and Dallas, but they recovered in a big way Thursday with a blowout win over the Spurs. “We certainly have a great deal of respect for the old Orlando team,” Danny Ainge told The Big Show on Thursday. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with this new Orlando team. On paper they’re still a great basketball team. I just don’t know what to expect.”
CELTICS (23-4, 10-0 last 10, 14-game winning streak)
Offensive Rating: 109.4 (Points per 100 possessions, 10th)
Defensive Rating: 99.3 (Points allowed per 100 possessions, 1st)
Pace: 91.0 (20th)
MAGIC (17-12, 2-8 last 10)
Offensive Rating: 106.1 (16th)
Defensive Rating: 102.2 (6th)
Pace: 91.4 (19th)
Likely Starters: Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, Brandon Bass , Dwight Howard
Injuries: Malik Allen (Ankle, questionable), Daniel Orton (Knee, out).
KEY MATCHUP: Shaquille O’Neal vs. Dwight Howard
It’s tempting to call out Paul Pierce and Turkoglu here since they have had so many great individual battles over the years (Pierce said admiringly during the 2009 playoffs that Turkoglu reminds him of himself), but Howard vs. Shaq gets marquee billing in more ways than one.
Start with the notion that Shaq has often criticized Howard for essentially stealing his Superman act . Beyond Shaq’s mind games and history with Orlando, the Big Maestro will have his hands full with Howard who is having another monster season. The key, as always, with Howard is keeping him out of his comfort zone in the post and Shaq certainly has the body to do that.
But get him out in space in the pick-and-roll and Shaq simply doesn’t have the foot speed to deal with Howard. The Celtics will use a variety of players on Howard including Glen Davis, Semih Erden and possibly Jermaine O’Neal. Kevin Garnett will also loom large as a help-side defender, a task made easier by Lewis’ absence on the perimeter.
This is one those games where the Celtics will miss Kendrick Perkins. The question is, how much?
KEY STAT: Points in the paint
No one gives up fewer attempts at the rim than Orlando, according to the numbers on Hoop Data . That has everything to do with Howard’s presence who, no offense to Garnett, remains the best defensive player in the league. The Celtics, meanwhile, are the most efficient team in the league when finishing at the rim, shooting over 70 percent.
Shaquille O’Neal’s presence alone means that Howard won’t have the freedom to roam like he normally does. If the Celtics can establish their interior game and get Howard in foul trouble it will play huge dividends because the Magic are extremely thin behind Howard up front.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
As it turned out, the Christmas Day game last year with Orlando represented the last stand for the regular-season Celtics. Injuries to Pierce and then Garnett took their toll over the next few months and the Celtics didn’t get their game back together until the playoffs.
The difference between this year’s team and last year’s in addition to improved depth, is that the injuries haven’t affected any of the big three. Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen are still doing what they do with Garnett obviously improved from last season. Still, while it sounds crazy to say about a team with the best record in the Eastern Conference and a 14-game winning streak, the Celtics are piecing things together on a nightly basis.
The Magic are going the other way, but their win over the Spurs should give them a huge boost. These teams don’t play many pretty games, but it should be extremely competitive.