The Orlando Magic won 59 games last year. They were hotter than the Earth's core at season's end, they steamrolled through the first two rounds of the East playoffs, and they were favored by many to win their first NBA title.
But the Celtics beat them, and there's one simple reason why — they were able to contain Dwight Howard one-on-one.
The C's went right at Superman with a two-headed monster of Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace, and it worked. They denied him every dunk he wanted, they kept him off the glass and they generally just made life miserable for him on both ends of the floor.
When the Celtics take on the Magic on Saturday afternoon, their first meeting since the Eastern Conference finals of last spring, that will once again be the game plan. Play Howard straight up, and everything else will fall into place.
Perk and 'Sheed won't be around this time — one's on the injured list, and the other's practically on Social Security. But Doc Rivers has a new pair of seven-footers to throw at the Orlando superstar. He calls them his "O'Neal brothers."
Shaquille O'Neal has been a pleasant surprise for the Celtics this season, and Jermaine O'Neal has had a rough start but plans to begin his road to redemption on Christmas Day in Orlando. Both All-Star centers will be a key piece of the game plan as the C's meet their chief East rival for the first time.
Stopping Howard one-on-one means everything. If you put a strong body on him, whether it's a Perkins or an O'Neal, you force him to work hard for his buckets. If he can't get dunks, he's got to settle for difficult post-ups or even mid-range shots. Neither is his specialty.
Teams that lose to Howard lose for one main reason. They're forced to double-team Howard, and that frees up one of the Magic's many other offensive weapons for open shots. In the past, those weapons were 3-point shooters, headlined by Rashard Lewis. But with Lewis shipped to Washington and the Magic rebuilt, the game plan is different. This team now has a dazzling array of offensive weapons — Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson, Gilbert Arenas — that can beat you from anywhere on the floor.
The Celtics, though, are loaded with expert defenders. Their veteran Big Three won't shy away from the challenge of guarding these revamped Magic, and as long as they have a body to put on each shooter, they should be in good shape.
That's why it all starts with containing Howard one-on-one. If the Celtics do that, the rest will take care of itself.