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Saturday, February 5, 2011
Celtics-Magic: A frontcourt battle

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

The Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic will meet Sunday for the third time in 43 days. Considering the biggest difference in this, the final head-to-head battle of the regular season, will be Boston's No. 43, that seems quite appropriate and a perfect place to start our look at three key storylines for this Super Bowl appetizer (ABC, 2:30 p.m. ET):

PERKINS, HOWARD RESUME FRONTCOURT BATTLE

Get your double technicals ready, one of the league's most intriguing (and feisty) frontcourt matchups is back in place as Kendrick Perkins, six games under his belt after returning from offseason ACL surgery, gets reunited with a player he's often lauded for being able to defend 1-on-1: Dwight Howard

Kendrick Perkins
Having Kendrick Perkins on the court this time will be key for the Celtics against the Magic.

Perkins' play through six games has been truly remarkable. He's averaging 7.0 points and 7.8 rebounds over 23.8 minutes and, in his return to the starting lineup Friday, produced a double-double with 13 points and a game-high 12 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.

But even after a strong showing against the Lakers last Sunday, Perkins will face his biggest challenge against Howard. In last month's meeting in Boston, Howard erupted for 33 points and 13 rebounds in 43 minutes, shooting a whopping 18 free throws. Perkins won't be afraid to use his fouls to make Howard earn those points, but his goal must be to bring down Howard's field goal percentage from the last meeting (10-of-19, .526).

One thing to watch: The biggest challenge Perkins has faced during his return has been regaining his flat-footed leaping ability. He spent time after practice Thursday jumping rope with strength and conditioning coach Bryan Doo, hoping to get those hops back. The lack of explosion shows in his block total: Perkins has just one in 143 minutes of court time. For a player who's averaged nearly a block and a half per game for his career, it's imperative Perkins get back that ability to challenge shots around the basket.

One more thing to watch: The Magic are plus-10 in the rebounding battle through the first meetings with Boston. Let's see if the Celtics can narrow that margin with Perkins back.

BOTH TEAMS COULD USE A BIG-GAME WIN

The Celtics are in the middle of a challenging five-game stretch that features visits from the four of the league's top teams (each game a national TV broadcast). Boston started the stretch off on the wrong foot, its offense stumbling over the final three minutes in a 101-97 loss to the Mavericks on Friday.

A loss Sunday won't send the team into panic mode (no, let Lakers fans have that), and the Celtics boast a glossy 17-6 mark against teams above. 500. But with the tail end of a back-to-back looming Monday in Charlotte, and the Lakers and Heat prepping for visits next week, Boston wouldn't mind a win that prevents only the fourth losing streak of the season (though the Celtics haven't lost more than two games in a row).

Meanwhile, Orlando finds itself in third place in its division (4½ games back of the Heat and a game behind the Hawks in the Southeast) and would be a fifth seed if the playoffs started Sunday. While the Magic are 17-8 since their roster overhaul and they remain in the upper crust of the Eastern Conference, there are still strides to be made.

In fact, it's hard to ignore that Orlando is a mere 8-15 (.348 winning percentage) against teams with records better than .500 this season. The Magic have feasted on sub-.500 squads (24-4, .857) and, aside from a road win over Dirk Nowitzki-less Dallas in early January, Orlando really doesn't have a quality win against a top opponent since Christmas.

TIGHTEN UP THAT 3-POINT DEFENSE

Allow us to play Captain Obvious for a moment and alert you to the Magic's penchant for taking 3-pointers. Orlando lives and dies beyond the arc, as evidenced by the fact that, according to ESPN Stats and Information, the Magic are 30th in the league in points off 2-point baskets (54 percent) and first in points off 3-point baskets (28.4 percent).

Overall, the Celtics are a fairly solid at defending the 3-point line, something coach Doc Rivers often emphasizes. Opponents are shooting a mere 34.9 percent beyond the arc against Boston, good for the ninth-best 3-point defense in the league.

But teams have had success in recent games, and that has to be a concern for the Green.

Over the past three contests, opponents are shooting 48.6 percent beyond the arc (18-of-37). The Mavericks canned eight triples Friday, including Jason Kidd's winner with 2.5 seconds to play. Yet, during the previous six games dating to the last Orlando matchup, opponents had shot just 29.6 percent (24-of-81) from downtown against the Celtics.

Key stat: The Magic have produced 11 triples in each of the first two meetings this season. Boston must bring that number down to be successful. It starts with the Orlando bench, which has produced nine of those 22 3-pointers against Boston this season.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.