What awaits the Celtics on Friday night when they host the Orlando Magic at the TD Garden?
Is it the toughest litmus test yet of the C's young season? Is it a battle of the Eastern Conference's two best teams? Is it what's sure to be the most emotionally charged game of the season for either squad?
Chances are, it's all three.
When the Magic come to Boston on Friday, it'll be a rematch of the seven-game series last May that ended the Celtics' postseason a month early. The C's had their sights set on a return to the NBA Finals, even without Kevin Garnett. But Boston had its championship hopes dashed by an incredible two-game defensive clinic put on by Dwight Howard and the Magic, who came back from a 3-2 deficit to win the series that culminated in a 101-82 blowout victory in Game 7 at the Garden.
A lot has changed over the past six months, however. These are two dramatically different teams, but they're still two of the NBA's teams to beat. The question is whether the Magic will have the upper hand again this season.
As far as the Celtics are concerned, the changes from May to November are obvious. They've brought back a new and improved Garnett, who is playing with two good knees and is turning the Celtics back into an elite defensive team. They've added Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels, giving them a deeper and more dangerous bench than ever before. And they've watched their two youngest starters, Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, improve dramatically with age. Across the board, this is an improved Celtics roster.
In Orlando's corner, things are a little trickier. The Magic have undergone a lot of changes, and it's hard to say how they'll match up with the Celtics this time out.
We don't know how the C's will deal with Vince Carter. Orlando overhauled its roster this summer to bring in the 32-year-old swingman, and he's redefined the identity of this Magic squad offensively. No longer are the Magic going to surround Howard with four perimeter scorers and simply jack up 3s — in Carter, they have a slasher who can score from absolutely anywhere on the floor.
So who gets that defensive duty for the Celtics? Does it fall naturally to Ray Allen? Do you stick him with Paul Pierce, generally seen as the more athletic defender? Do you dip into your bench and turn to Daniels, a younger and quicker defender, to handle Carter? There's no easy answer.
We don't know if the Celtics can handle the depth of this Orlando bench. Get this — through 12 games, the Magic have 10 guys who have made at least one start. They have 11 players averaging double-digit minutes. They have Ryan Anderson coming off the bench to give them 14.3 points a night, they have J.J. Redick, a deadly three-point shooter, in their arsenal, and they have Brandon Bass and Marcin Gortat giving them an absurd amount of size in the paint.
This will be a test for the Celtics. Their bench is good, but it might not be this good. Their defense is good, but they haven't seen a multidimensional squad like Orlando yet. The Celtics will be tested in a lot of ways, and they can only hope they'll be ready.
Are the C's still the better team? Probably. The biggest difference between last May and now is the presence of Garnett, and you can't underestimate KG's effect on the Celtics, especially defensively. But there are a lot of variables entering the equation this season, and these days, it's hard to know anything for sure.
The Celtics have a lot to prove this weekend. And after what happened last spring, they'll be dying to prove it. Let's see what the Celtics can do with a chip on their shoulder.