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After being left for dead following an embarrassing loss in Game 3, not many people expected to see the Orlando Magic play the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Finals. The Magic, for lack of a better word, quit in Game 3 and didn’t put forth the effort and energy required to compete against the Celtics, let alone beat them. However, after playing well in Game 4 and really well in Game 5, Orlando has given themselves an opportunity to live to play another day, as long as they can beat Boston in Game 6 on the road.
Tonight’s game will be the toughest road test the Magic will have ever played this season, up to this point, without a doubt. There’s no guarantee that Orlando will win, though at least they put themselves in a position to have a chance.
What have the Magic done to extend the series to a Game 6?
A small has played big
After a forgettable appearance in the 2009 NBA Finals, Jameer Nelson has been a man on a mission in the 2010 NBA Playoffs and making people in Orlando quickly forget about Rafer Alston. Or maybe not. When the Magic trailed the Celtics 3-0 in the series and were on the verge of being swept, there was some faint talk in the blogosphere that Orlando was better off with Alston than Nelson. Fools. In 13 games in the postseason this year, Nelson has scored 20 or more points six times. Alston had the benefit of playing in 23 playoff games last year, yet only scored 20 or more points three times. This is the player that’s better than Nelson? No. Alston isn’t half the shooter that Nelson is, either. Last year, Alston’s True Shooting Percentage was .471 percent. This year, Nelson is at .627 percent. Nelson can be relied upon to a deadly marksman and an offensive machine. Alston can be relied upon to be, well … Skip to my Lou.
The discussion could go on but the point is this, the Magic wouldn’t be in the position that they’re in if it wasn’t for Nelson. It took him three games to “crack the code” against Boston — some have said too little, too late — but Nelson has been magnificent in Games 4 and 5, playing at a level Orlando needs him to play if they want to pull off the impossible. With the help of staggered picks to free himself up in pick and rolls, Nelson has been able to create for himself or others and help lead the charge offensively for the Magic. And more than anything else, Nelson has been aggressive on offense and actively looking to be a playmaker.
Nelson’s work isn’t finished, though. If Orlando wants to give Nelson the opportunity to work his magic in a possible Game 7 at home, he needs to hold his end of the bargain and play out of his mind in Game 6 on the road.
A big has played BIG
There’s no denying that Dwight Howard is a lightning rod for criticism almost every time he steps on the floor but he keeps on keeping on. His offensive repertoire always in question, Howard has taken his game to another level against the Celtics as the pressure mounts and the stakes get higher. Like Nelson, Howard has been a force offensively the past two games. And like Nelson, Howard has been able to “crack the code” against Boston, finding ways to be successful against Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace.
It’s been something that’s been stated repetitively but for Howard to have success against the Celtics on offense, he needs to have his athleticism and speed utilized to counter the strength that is being used by Perkins and, to a lesser extent, by Wallace to push Howard out of his comfort zone and slow him down. The single, most effective way to use Howard as efficiently as possible is to run pick and rolls for him. With Howard on the move and never stationary, he’s been able to have his way offensively against Boston and as a result, that has started to open up the perimeter for Orlando’s shooters.
Howard has proven capable of executing and scoring on the low block when necessary, but it’s no secret that he’s been at his best against Boston when he’s being used in the pick and roll.
As for Howard’s defense, it’s been phenomenal in his last two outings. The energy and effort was there for Howard, as he’s been able to exert his dominance defensively time and again for the Magic. People marvel at Howard’s shot blocking ability and rightfully so, as that it was one of the easiest ways for everyone to recognize how good a player is on defense. This was best exemplified in the first quarter of Game 5, when Rajon Rondo was able to get out in transition and had an open look at a layup but Howard, like LeBron James is known for doing many times, hustled from one end of the court to the other and electrified the crowd with a chase-down block. That’s fine and dandy, but it can’t be overlooked how Howard is the anchor of Orlando’s defense. Howard’s ability to provide help-side defense, as well as his willingness to either be a presence in the paint or on the perimeter, has been crucial against the Celtics.
A coach has adjusted
There’s no question that head coach Stan Van Gundy takes losses as hard as his players do, maybe harder. Which is why it shouldn’t be a surprise, after Van Gundy took blame for Game 3′s debacle, that he’s stepped up his game coaching-wise. Yes, Van Gundy acquiesced to Matt Barnes‘ request to defend Paul Pierce but aside from a lackluster performance in Game 5, Pierce has had his way on offense no matter who’s been guarding him.
Aside from that, Van Gundy has adjusted in other ways for the Magic. Like relying more on J.J. Redick and less on Vince Carter. Like inserting little-used Brandon Bass in the rotation for more energy in the second unit. Of course, Van Gundy’s adjustment on offense to add staggered picks in the pick and roll has garnered the most attention among analysts. But little tweaks, such as having Nelson push the more pace here and there have been equally effective.
Van Gundy gets lambasted sometimes because of his personality, depending on what you read or hear, but there’s no question that he’s one of the best coaches in the NBA and, with the myriad of adjustments he’s made since Game 3, he’s been able to show why he’s revered as such.
Will these trends continue for Orlando? We’ll find out later tonight.