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The Celtics and Magic, who square off today, look like real contenders.
By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
Published January 27, 2008
From left, the Celtics' lineup featuring Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen looks like it has been playing together for years.
Dwight Howard is enjoying a stellar fourth season, leading the Magic with an average of 22 points and 15 rebounds - both career highs.
Free-agent acquisition Rashard Lewis, a 10-year veteran and former Seattle standout, is averaging 18.5 points and 5.1 rebounds.
Forward Hedo Turkoglu, averaging 19 points per game, is doing more as part of the Magic, especially during the fourth quarter.
When the NBA released its 2007-08 schedule last summer, fans of the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic had no reason to circle Jan. 27 on the calendar and count down to a showdown in O-Town.
Six months ago, the game had all the trappings of a nondescript midseason matchup between teams in transition.
But for Boston and Orlando, there's a whole new bounce to the ball these days.
When the Celtics and Magic tip off at 1 p.m. today in the Amway Arena, they won't bear any resemblance to the squads of 2006-07. Boston posted the second-worst record in the league at 24-58, while the Magic stumbled into the last of eight playoff berths at 40-42 and was swept in the first round by Detroit.
Meet the new, improved Celtics and Magic - two bona fide success stories, and none more than Boston.
Bulked up with some blockbuster moves in the offseason, the Celtics have become the class of the league with a 34-7 record, building an 11-game cushion in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference. Orlando, guided by new coach Stan Van Gundy, leads the Southeast Division at 27-18, holding a two-game edge over Washington.
For both teams, good things this season have come in threes.
The Celtics have been reborn with their Big Three of 6-11 forward Kevin Garnett, obtained in a trade with Minnesota; 6-5 guard Ray Allen, acquired from Seattle, and Boston's 1999 first-round pick, 6-7 guard-forward Paul Pierce. Garnett averaging 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds, Allen (18.2 points, four rebounds) and Pierce (20.4 points, 5.5 rebounds) have put the Celtics back on the NBA map, in position to shoot for their first league title in 21 years.
"I have tons of respect for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and for their games," said 6-5 Orlando guard Maurice Evans, obtained in November from the Lakers. "Those three guys have really helped elevate the play of the other guys around them."
Yet the Magic has been transformed by its own towering trio. Dwight Howard, the team's 6-11 center-forward, is enjoying a stellar fourth season, leading the team with an average of 22 points and 15 rebounds - both career highs. Howard has made a bigger impact thanks, in part, to the acquisition of free-agent 6-10 forward Rashard Lewis, a 10-year veteran and former Seattle standout averaging 18.5 points and 5.1 rebounds.
But a third, unexpected element in the equation has emerged, helping give the Magic new life. Forward Hedo Turkoglu (pronounced Heed-o Turk-oh-lu) has answered a challenge from Van Gundy and stepped up his game with impressive results.
The eight-year pro from Turkey is averaging 19 points (up from 13.3 last season and four points higher than in any other season), and he has posted career highs in rebounds (6.1), assists (4.2) and steals (1.1). He has exhibited more consistency and confidence than at any point in his career, which began in 2000 with Sacramento. Turkoglu has been most effective in the fourth quarter, where his clutch shooting has produced a team-high 262 points, putting him among the league leaders. He also ranks No. 9 in 3-point shots with 91.
"He's our go-to guy," Van Gundy said this week. "We can get the ball in his hands. He's got a rare combination of size and skills. He can do almost anything on the floor - can shoot the ball with the range, can handle and pass, can run pick and rolls, can post up. So he gives you a lot of versatility to play against any kind of matchup. He's really been key to our success."
At the start of the season, Van Gundy made a point of telling Turkoglu that he had a rare combination of skills for a big man and All-Star talent that wasn't being tapped.
"What I said at our very first meeting, in front of everybody, was that we thought he had the talent to be as good as any player in this league," Van Gundy said. "And we wanted to see him play at that level. For most of the year, he's done just that."
Turkoglu, whose NBA signing in 2000 was a nationally televised event in Turkey, is enjoying his expanded role.
"Stan had confidence in me, and knew I could be more than a role player," he said. "He wanted me to be one of the key guys on the team. He's given me the ball to do more things and wants me to create things. That's given me confidence and has made me a better player."
When opponents focus on Howard or Lewis, Turkoglu has been taking advantage. "The three of us have really bonded - we have a good chemistry," he said. "We're not selfish. And we just hope to keep getting better as the season goes along."
"Hedo's been a tremendous player for us," added Lewis. "He's a great scorer, and it's always good to have three scorers on a team. Dwight's even putting up career numbers, so Hedo's helped all of us."
Monday night, Turkoglu's 26 points led the Magic in a dramatic 102-100 victory over Detroit, with Lewis' 10-foot bank shot at the buzzer snapping a nine-game losing streak to the Pistons. Two nights later, his team-high 26 points paved the way for Orlando's 112-85 win over the Memphis Grizzlies and a third straight win before Friday night's loss at the Pistons. Turkoglu scored 23.
Orlando has split its games with the Celtics this season, winning 104-102 Nov. 18 at home, then losing 103-91 Dec. 23 in Boston.
Now comes Game Three. And for a pair of revitalized NBA teams, the outcome today will likely hinge on the Big Three.