Conference finals preview capsules
A look at the matchups in the NBA conference finals, which begin this weekend (with regular season and playoff records):
Season Series: Magic, 3-1. All four games were decided by single digits, the closest being Orlando's 96-94 victory on Jan. 28 when Rashard Lewis made the winning layup with 1.3 seconds left. Vince Carter had three 20-point games for the Magic and Lewis averaged 18.
Storyline: Instead of the expected playoffs rematch with Cleveland, the red-hot Magic get one instead with the resurgent Celtics, who knocked out the top-seeded Cavaliers. Orlando won the final two games of last year's Eastern Conference semifinal series, including Game 7 in Boston, to end the Celtics' title reign, then ousted Cleveland to reach the NBA finals. The Magic come off the most lopsided four-game sweep in playoff history, beating Atlanta by a combined 101 points.
Key Matchup I: Jameer Nelson vs. Rajon Rondo. The point guards have been two of the best players this postseason. Nelson, who missed the series against the Celtics last year, is averaging 20.5 points. Rondo has been Boston's top all-around performer, averaging 18 points, 11.1 assists and 6.3 rebounds, and his athleticism could be tough for Nelson.
Key Matchup II: Dwight Howard vs. Kendrick Perkins. Howard has been dominant when he's been able to avoid foul trouble and stay on the court, shooting a playoff-best 68 percent from the floor. Still, the Celtics believe Perkins can defend him 1-on-1, which means they wouldn't have to double-team and leave Orlando's 3-point shooters open.
X-factor: Kevin Garnett. Last postseason, the Magic faced a Celtics team without Garnett, who seems to be getting healthier and more effective with every game this spring. He scored at least 18 in all six games against Cleveland, capped by a 22-point, 12-rebound night in the clincher. With the undersized Lewis at the position, the Magic can be susceptible against a top power forward. But Garnett has to show he has the mobility to chase Lewis around the perimeter.
Prediction: Magic in 7.
Season series: Lakers 3-1. Los Angeles held the high-scoring Suns to just 95.3 points per game in its three victories. The Suns' lone victory, a 118-103 win at home on Dec. 28, came when reserves Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic and Leandro Barbosa all were in double figures. Only one game came after the new year. Kobe Bryant averaged 27.5 points.
Storyline: After long rests following second-round sweeps, the Lakers and Suns finally get back on the court. Phoenix at last got past longtime nemesis San Antonio, but now faces an even mightier foe, as the Lakers again looked like the best of the West in their sweep of Utah and are four wins from a third straight trip to the NBA finals.
Key Matchup I: Bryant vs. Jason Richardson. Bryant shot 54.4 percent against Phoenix this season, second-highest among the 12 teams he faced at least three times, according to STATS, LLC. (He shot 62.3 percent against Memphis.) Averaging 21.9 points, Richardson has been terrific in the playoffs after being anything but against the Lakers in the regular season. He shot only 31 percent overall and made just 3 of 21 3-pointers.
Key Matchup II: Pau Gasol vs. Amare Stoudemire. Both All-Stars are scoring better than 20 points per game in the playoffs, with Gasol shooting 56 percent and averaging 13.1 rebounds. The Lakers have the frontline height and depth to make things tough for Stoudemire, and they held him to 2-of-15 shooting in their Nov. 12 rout. Stoudemire averaged 24.3 in the other three meetings.
X-Factor: Robin Lopez. The Suns need every big body they can get against the Lakers, and believe their former starting center will be available in this series. Lopez has been out since March 28 with a bulging disk in his back.
Prediction: Lakers in 5.