After jumping to a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals, the underdog Celtics have since dropped two games and received a beating down low from the Magic. As the series returns to Boston for Game 6 Friday night, here are five things worthy of debate as Boston tries, yet again, to finish off the second-seeded Magic.
1. Momentum. The tone of the questioning that greeted the Magic in their locker room following their 113-92 win Wednesday in Game 5 made it seem as if they were up 3-2 in the series. (To their credit the Magic players didn't respond in the same way, recognizing that Game 6 will be their most difficult assignment.) While Orlando has played well to win the last two games and recover from its stunning 3-0 deficit, the truth is the Celtics have played 1 1/2 bad games in this conference final.
The question now is whether they can rejuvenate their winning formula of the first three games: defending Dwight Howard one-on-one while closing out to the three-point line, especially now that Orlando's shooters have found their deep range. Will the Magic extend their recent strengths into Game 6 in spite of the hostile surroundings? "It's very difficult to score when you're taking the ball out of bounds every single time," said Boston coach Doc Rivers after watching Orlando shoot 52.2 percent in Game 5. "It obviously hurts [Rajon] Rondo the most in that situation, even though I thought he played a pretty good game."
2. Rondo vs. Jameer Nelson. Over the last two games Nelson has had the better of this point-guard matchup, outscoring Rondo 47-28. In that span Rondo has been unable to burst into the paint, leading to speculation that he is more bothered by cramping in his right leg (or some other injury) than he is letting on. But more troublesome has been the breadth of Howard's defense as he has either blocked or deterred myriad layup attempts by the Celtics whether in the half court or trailing fast in transition.
Nelson and Rondo have opposite approaches -- the former seeks to score, while Rondo is innately a passer. But their teams depend on each of them to aggressively drive the ball inside and create imbalance in the defense, and the winner of this duel could determine whether the series ends or returns to Orlando for Game 7 Sunday.
3. Howard vs. the uncertain three. Howard has singlehandedly devastated Boston's front line over the last two games. His elbow gave Glen "Big Baby" Davis a concussion that may sideline him from Game 6 (his availability will be decided at game time, according to Rivers). Howard drew Kendrick Perkins into a second technical foul Wednesday that threatened his suspension for Game 6 (though the NBA Thursday rescinded one of Perkins' technicals, leaving him with six for the postseason -- one below the league limit -- and freeing him to start Friday). In addition, Wallace suffered a back injury in Game 5 whose severity is unknown.
The Celtics have needed most of their fouls to defend Howard, who has overcome all tactics -- including a fourth-quarter hacking strategy which he quashed by making three straight free throws. Can Boston's big men diminish his power?
4. Rebounding. The Celtics outrebounded Orlando over the previous three evenings before the Magic clobbered them 43-26 on the boards in Game 5. Poor rebounding was a major symptom of Boston's lethargic play over the final four months of the regular season, but the Celtics had raised their aggressiveness for most of the playoff run before their collapse Wednesday. Rebounding effort will be a big indicator for Game 6. "We have not done a real good job on the boards throughout the series," said Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy. "Tonight we were great on the boards. Everybody will look at the three-point shooting [where Orlando was 13-of-25 in Game 5], but the biggest thing is that we dominated the glass."
5. The opening quarter. The team with the fastest start has won each game, so look for a strong 48-minute effort from both sides. Each will attempt to enforce its style in hope of putting pressure on the opponent, with the understanding that neither team can afford to lose Friday. "They are a great team when they get a lead," said Rivers. "Because then those threes are easy.''