After dismantling the Atlanta Hawks in the second round of the playoffs, the Orlando Magic enter the Eastern Conference finals as one of the hottest teams in the NBA, and when Game 1 tips off Sunday afternoon, an unlikely foe will be sitting on the bench at the other end of the floor.
After Orlando thumped Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat and dispatched LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers with relative ease, the Boston Celtics come to town to battle with a spot in the Finals on the line.
There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the series with many so-called experts making the Celtics their Cinderella pick to reach the Finals, but one thing is for sure - the Celtics aren't out there just trying not to lose too badly (right, Charlotte?), and they're not going to roll over and die 24 minutes into the series (are you listening, Atlanta?).
If the Magic want to make a return trip to the game's biggest stage, they're going to have to play their best basketball of the year, and there are three keys for the Magic on their quest for the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Dwight Howard needs to stay on the floor
The first two rounds have been a true roller-coaster ride for the Magic's All-Star center. Against Charlotte, Howard seemingly entered each game with two fouls already on the books and almost spent as much time off the court as he did on it.
Tyson Chandler, Theo Ratliff and Nazr Mohammed gave Howard fits with their physical play in the post, and Orlando's man of steel failed to record even one double-double in his team's sweep of the Bobcats -- although his five blocks a night sure did help.
The Hawks took a different approach in the second round, allowing Howard to remain on the floor, where he proceeded to average 21 points on 84.4-percent shooting.
In other words -- Howard missed five shots in the entire Atlanta series. Whose game plan do you think the Celtics are going to use?
Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis, Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett and a host of other big, mean bodies have a number of fouls to use, and use them they will.
They'll do everything in their power to get under Howard's skin -- a very doable task to at this point in the season -- and you've got to believe that if Chandler, Ratliff and Mohammed can do it well, then Perkins, Davis, Wallace and Garnett can do it even better.
This won't be like the Charlotte series. If Howard doesn't play, the Magic won't win. Period.
Howard has to play at least 35 minutes a game. He has to learn to use his quickness and finesse to work around Perkins rather than using his strength to muscle through him. And he has to make his free throws. If he does those three things, the Magic should have no problem dispatching the Celtics.
Interestingly enough, Howard did a respectable job of staying on the floor in his four games against Boston this year, averaging 36 minutes per game. Howard played 43 in Orlando's Christmas Day showdown with a Paul Pierce-less Celtics team -- a game that also happened to be the Magic's only loss of the season against the C's.
On that drizzly December afternoon, Howard scored only five points on 1-of-7 shooting, but pulled down 20 rebounds and blocked four shots.
However, Howard's poor offensive performance on Christmas Day was not a factor in Orlando's 86-77 defeat. That loss came at the hands of one Rajon Rondo, which brings me to my next point...
The Magic must contain Rondo
Quickly, name the only player on either team in the Boston-Cleveland series to average a double-double of any kind for the series.
King James? No.
Kevin Garnett? No.
You can keep guessing all day, and until you call Rondo's name, you're going to be wrong.
With his 20.7 points, 11.8 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game, the 6-foot-1 fireball out of the University of Kentucky torched the top-seeded Cavaliers and may have driven James right out of Cleveland.
Rondo's unreal 29-point, 18-rebound, 13-assist night in Game 4 helped the Celtics avoid a damning 3-1 deficit as the team headed back to Cleveland, and his consistent play throughout the postseason has led Boston to a once-improbable Eastern Conference finals berth.
If the Magic allow Rondo to run wild like the Cavaliers did -- and like the Heat did before them -- then they may find themselves tuning into the NBA Finals rather than playing in them.
In 47 minutes on Christmas Day, Rondo played the role of the Grinch, pouring in 17 points while pulling down 13 rebounds and dishing out 8 assists.
The onus will be on Jameer Nelson to contain him in the Eastern Conference finals, because he surely can't shut him down -- and neither can anyone else. The key for Nelson and the Magic will be to turn Rondo into a jump shooter. This both plays into Rondo's weakness and also helps keep Howard out of foul trouble in the middle.
In four games against the Magic this season, Rondo averaged 50 percent shooting on shots at the rim and 37.8 percent shooting from everywhere else according to HoopData -- a number that includes a perfect 3-of-3 mark from three-point range, an anomaly for Rondo, who averaged 21.3 percent shooting on 80 three-point attempts in the regular season.
If Nelson can take away the penetration game and force Rondo into perimeter passes and long jump shots (Rondo made just 2 of 17 jumpers from 16 to 23 feet against the Magic this season), this series gets much, much easier for the Magic.
Vince Carter has to -- yes HAS TO -- produce
This series will mark the first time this postseason that the Magic need Vince Carter to produce. Against Charlotte and Atlanta, production from Carter was nothing more than a luxury. Stellar output from Orlando's biggest offseason acquisition was hardly necessary to the success of the team as a whole.
The Magic cruised past Charlotte despite a dreadful four-game series from Carter and Larry Brown's best efforts to slow the pace of the games to a grinding halt. And while No. 15 turned it around against Atlanta -- averaging 18.3 points on 51 percent shooting -- the Magic didn't really need it.
Check that -- they didn't need it at all.
Stan Van Gundy could have started at shooting guard in that series and the Magic would have been fine against whoever that was posing as the Atlanta Hawks.
That won't be the case against Boston. Four All-Stars, including three sure-fire Hall of Famers, won't allow it.
It's easy to be fooled by Carter's numbers against the Celtics during the regular season. His 19.8 points per game against the men in green exceeded his season average of 16.6. He also pulled down more rebounds and dished out more assists than he did in the other 78 contests.
But he took a lot of shots -- 75 to be exact. And he didn't make all that many of them. Carter tickled the twine on just 29 shots -- including a 10-of-29 performance and a 2-of-13 performance -- for an average of 38.7 percent from the field. Carter also connected on just 35 percent of his 17 three-point attempts against Boston.
Scoring a lot of points because you're taking a lot of shots isn't the recipe the Magic need for playoff success -- especially not against this team.
In four games against Boston this year, Orlando shot just 41 percent, and an eight-point second quarter doomed the Magic in their only loss to the Celtics.
With the way Orlando is excelling in literally every aspect of the game, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which they shoot that poorly in this series. Their ball movement has been terrific, Howard has been patient in the post and has grown to accept his role as a facilitator rather than a scorer, and the Magic shouldn't struggle to find shots the way they did in earlier games against Boston.
Their defense was just as good as Boston's throughout the season series, holding the Celtics to fewer than 87 points per game. If Nelson can contain Rondo and Matt Barnes can frustrate Pierce as he tends to do to everyone else (right, Kobe?), I can't see an aging Garnett taking the lead on offense and willing Boston to victory.
The final scores will definitely be closer than they have been in past series (Orlando only holds a plus-5 total scoring margin in four games against Boston this year) and this will definitely be the most physical series Orlando has played to date, but the end results will be largely the same.
I expect Boston to take one game (possibly Game 3 at TD Garden after a three-day layoff), but no more than that. I'll be interested to see how the Magic handle their first defeat of the postseason, but I don't imagine Van Gundy will have any problem keeping the team from a devastating free-fall.
So with that I say the following: This decision wasn't as easy as calling the Atlanta series, but I'm taking the Magic in five.