Saturday May 15th, 2010

ORLANDO -- The best stretch of this season opens here Sunday. The recast Magic and revived Celtics each have everything any contender could want -- defense, firepower, balance, depth, experience, health and superior coaching. Both sides are loaded with charismatic talents aiming to win at the expense of their personal numbers.

The Celtics arrive for Game 1 some 65 hours after finishing their upset of the top-seeded Cavaliers. As that series wore on, the Celtics defense rallied to wear down LeBron James, forcing him to commit turnovers and preventing him from finishing at the rim. Their defensive commitment was not quite up to the standards of their 2008 championship run, but it was close enough. "The regular season is a lot different than the postseason and we knew they were going to be a different team,'' said Cleveland coach Mike Brown.

The Celtics are less concerned about fatigue than about maintaining their intensity after a regular season pockmarked with inconsistency. "I'm confident we're going to get the effort, because we've done that,'' said Boston coach Doc Rivers. "I keep pushing our guys about focus. I'm always worried about that; I guarantee you coach (Stan) Van Gundy has worried about that all the time. But right now I think they're focused with their effort, and we're going to get that."

Boston has come on late in the season, but the Magic have maintained a high standard for months. They've gone 30-4 since late February, culminating in a pair of postseason sweeps against Charlotte and Atlanta while throttling the Hawks by a league-record 25.3 points per game.

The question now is whether their five days off in between series will hurt them against the hot Celtics. The answer is likely not, considering the demanding style of coach Van Gundy during their practices.

Two matchups will be especially interesting. After missing Boston's seven-game loss to Orlando last postseason, Kevin Garnett has recovered from his knee injury to average 17.6 points and 8.3 rebounds in the playoffs. He helped close out Cleveland in Game 6 with 22 points and 12 rebounds in 37 minutes, and his ability to defend Orlando's versatile Rashard Lewis out to the three-point line will provide the Celtics with a talent they lacked last season.

"I can honestly say each month I've gotten stronger,'' said Garnett. "The playoffs come around, it's time to pick it up another notch and that's all I've been trying to do. I'm a workaholic when it comes to trying to better myself -- nothing's changed, just trying to better myself."

The other crucial duel involves the undersized point guards, Rajon Rondo and Jameer Nelson, each of whom has been his team's best player this postseason. Nelson has led Orlando with 20.5 points per game in the playoffs, while Rondo has been a triple-double threat for the Celtics. Will they be able to keep each other from driving into the paint?

The Magic acknowledged that Van Gundy is likely to open Game 1 by crossmatching Matt Barnes to guard Ray Allen and Vince Carter onto Paul Pierce. But the Celtics should be more concerned with dousing the hot starts of the Magic, who have made a habit of blitzing opponents out of the gate, and also with contending with Orlando's bench, which is the league's deepest.

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