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Conference Finals

   by Al McMordie - 05/18/2010

2010 is shaping up as the Year when Home Court really doesn't mean that much. That is not usually the case, but this spring has been different. The Suns won two games at San Antonio during their sweep. Boston gets blown out at home by the Cavs, their worst home playoff loss ever, sandwiched around a pair of wins at top-seeded Cleveland by a combined 50 points!

If Orlando and the Lakers advance to the Finals, it will be the second-seeded Magic that will get home court, unlike last season when the Lakers had the advantage.

In the East, the storyline is the Celtics' team defense against Orlando's ability to go down low with Dwight Howard or bomb away from three-point land. A key matchup, of course, is Kevin Garnett against Rashard Lewis. It was a matchup that didn't happen in last year's Eastern Conference Finals, as Garnett was sidelined with an injury, a series won by Orlando in seven.

It also pits an age old question: Is it better to start hot, or finish hot? Orlando had a 26-15 start, then started 8-0 in the playoffs, part of a 28-3 run. Boston started 23-5, before going on a 27-27 run while battling injuries with some key players MIA.

Howard met with hard demanding coach Stan Van Gundy back in November and told him his hard driving, yelling style was wearing on the players and he could lose them if it continues. Van Gundy, to his credit, listened and took his foot off the pedal. The results since speak for themselves.

Orlando general manager Otis Smith was heavily criticized for allowing Hedo Turkoglu to sign with the Toronto Raptors and acquiring Vince Carter. It took months for Carter to mesh with Orlando's system, which uses Howard's dominance inside to free up 3-point shooters at three spots on the floor. But Carter and the whole team have gelled the last three months. I get the sense that Carter is delighted at this point in his career to be more of a role player than being asked to carry a team's offense.

Center Dwight Howard made 84.4 percent of his field-goal attempts and 57.7 percent of his foul shots in the Atlanta series. He is a terrible free throw shooter, so expect the Celtics to use up almost all their fouls with Glen Davis, Kendrick Perkins, Rasheed Wallace and maybe even Shelden Williams. It was a tactic they also used against Cleveland, the worst free throw shooting team in the league (Orlando is second worst).

Orlando players admitted they expect this to be a low-scoring series, and when you look at the regular season meetings you can see why: 83-78, 86-77, 96-94 and 96-89 (3-1 under the total). The first game in this Conference Finals also went under the total (Boston 92-88), and only four times in the past 15 Magic-Celtics meetings has a team scored 100 points. Boston's leading scorer against Orlando during the regular season was guard Ray Allen, averaging 16.8 points per game.

Out West, it will be the Suns uptempo game against the taller Lakers and their rebounding prowess. One subtle area in which Phoenix may have an edge is in the play of its reserves, who have averaged nearly 35 points a game in the playoffs. The Suns go 10 deep, and their non-starters are particularly dangerous from three-point range, featuring small forward Jared Dudley, big man Channing Frye, guards Goran Dragic and Leandro Barbosa and forward Louis Amundson.

The Lakers haven't had much of a bench all season and it was troubling at times, blowing leads and forcing the starters back in. Oklahoma City Thunder reserve James Harden outscored the Lakers' bench by himself, 18 points to 14, in Oklahoma City's Game 3 win. But playoff basketball usually comes down to star power, defense and rebounding and the Lakers have big edges with 7-foot Pau Gasol, 6-10 Lamar Odom, 7-foot Andruw Bynum and 6-7 Kobe Bryant.

Phoenix, obviously, will look to bomb away as they are the NBA's best three-point shooting team, but the Lakers boast the league's best three-point defensive team. In the Lakers' three wins in four regular season games against Phoenix, they held the Suns to only 33.3% shooting from downtown. Phoenix finished 28-4 SU when they shoot at least 45% from three-point range, while the Lakers went 17-0 SU and 13-4 ATS when they limited opponents to 40% (or worse) shooting from the field (encompassing both 3-point and 2-point shots). So, keep an eye on FG% numbers in this series. The Lakers throttled Phoenix 128-107 on Monday, and held the Suns to 5-for-22 shooting from three-point land (though Phoenix did shoot 49% from the field for the game). Ask coaching staffs or handicappers: Little things can mean the difference between winning and losing – both straight up and against the number. Good luck, as always...Big Al McMordie.

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