Regular Season Standings: Boston 66-16, Cleveland 45-37
Regular Season Matchups: Boston 2-2 Cleveland. Only 1 game came after the mid-season trade which was one of their first games while they were struggling, Boston won by 5 that night. Boston won the other game when LeBron James sat out with injury. The two Cavs wins were by a point and a 5 point overtime win. The latter was early in the season and the former came while Garnett was injured. It’s hard to get a good read on the teams but there are some things we know, especially about how the Cavs players that were there pre-trade match up with the Celtics.
It’s a lot better than it was two months ago. I thought they were dead in the water following that mid-season trade but they’ve managed to play pretty well recently and they still pose the Celtics some problems.
Let’s start with the King and move onto the supporting cast, I’ll run two sections, briefly his brilliance, and secondly the C’s potential defensive approaches.
The Brilliance: LeBron just averaged 30/8/7 on 48% shooting. Only two others (MJ/Oscar) have ever done that before. He’s become a well above average defensive player. His intelligence without the ball has improved dramaticly. His ability to involve his teammates has improved dramaticly. His understanding of how to control a game a game has improved exponentially. His ability to take over a game and win a fourth quarter by himself is unbelievable. He also averaged 30/9.5/8 on 48% shooting while single handidly destroying the Wizards defense and outproducing their best scorers. LeBron’s defense against Paul Pierce is going to be very important in this series also.
Oh and he’s like 6-9, 260 with freakish quickness/pace/jumping/strength. One of the true greats in today’s game and one of the most dominant players in the league today.
How will Celtics the defend LeBron?
Well Boston just played Joe Johnson down in Atlanta and that was a good warmup. Joe is another ball handling, shot creating, passing, playmaker, shooter, penetrator with great size and athleticism. A guy who can kill you 35 feet from the rim. Boston tried out a bunch of different strategies but stuck with trapping and double teaming whenver possible.
They did the same thing to LeBron in the Cavs-Celtics final matchup after Bron destroyed them twice in previous games. Washington also tried to trap and double LeBron, doing so most aggressively in game six.
It won’t work for the Celtics this time. The Cavs have the shooters and interior players (Joe/Z can score, all four can punish them on the backboards) to make the Celtics pay in ways that the Hawks couldn’t. This can backfire in a huge way if Cleveland hit their wide open shots.
San Antonio defended him the best in the Finals last season by defending Bron one-on-one and then having all their other defenders load up. Hedge off their player into the possible penetrating lanes to close down available space for LeBron to move and to offer quick double teams. This turned LeBron into a jump shooter. Unfortunately for Boston they have nobody as good as Bruce Bowen. Paul Pierce will get the chief assignment and Posey the secondary assignment. Doc will probably try others but those two will be the main guys. Both are quality defenders but neither player has the lateral quickness or defensive ability of Bowen 40 feet from the rim. They can’t defend Bron one-on-one like San Antonio did because Bron can create too good of a head start against them and bull his way into the paint. As a result, Boston likely will have to trap whether it’s good for them or not.
The Cavs are the league’s best rebounding team. They held 76.6% of their defensive backboards (1st) and snatched 32.2% of their offensive rebounds (3rd) in the first round, to give them a rebounding advantage of 7.5 boards a night (1st) against Washington. Washington were a slightly above average rebounding team during the season.
In the regular season they led the league in rebounding differential at +4.2 a night. They ranked second in the league at 75.8% defensive rebounding and 2nd in offensive rebounding percentage at 31%. Their regular season numbers probably under-sell the rebounding edge considering they added Ben and Joe midseason.
This is a huge advantage for Cleveland. Control the board, control the tempo. Boston were a very good rebounding team themselves, on their defensive backboards primarily, but they’ve been vulnerable several times during the season and especially during the first round of the playoffs were they were the fifth worst team at protecting their own glass in the first round. Boston were especially vulnerable when they tried trapping Joe Johnson. This could be a big advantage of Cleveland.
Ilgauksas kills Kendrick Perkins whenever he plays against him. Some players just have guys they don’t play well against, for Perk it’s Z. Perkins can’t handle his length or savvy. Like Haywood in the last round Perkins has trouble concentrating and defending Z’s jump shot. Perkins’ small size makes him susceptible to Ilgauskas’ famous tip shots on the offensive boards, it was a regular sight to see him push Perk low and just tip the shot over him. This is a big matchup for Cleveland and it has to go well for them. Past indications are good and it should be a very advantageous matchup for the Cavs
The Ex-Celtics Factor
I’m always fearful of the ex-player card. These guys can show up and produce anything. They know their old teammates tendancies, they know their strengths and weaknesses and they want to destroy their former team. They’re dangerous. The Cavs have two in Delonte West and Wally Szcerbiak.
Delonte West is the type of guy I like to have on my team when he’s angry, when he shows to people they’re wrong. He’s scrappy, skillful and holds a grudge. You better believe he wants to prove the Celtics wrong about choosing Rondo over him. During the two regular season games he played against Rondo and the Celtics, one for Seattle and one for Cleveland, Delonte averaged 19.5ppg, 5apg, 4.5rpg on 64% shooting, 60% from three, and 80% at the line. He was very aggressive and looked to penetrate on Rondo whenever possible and was mostly very succesful. Delonte looked for his shot a lot but didn’t come to far out of the offense to do it. This is a very dangerous matchup. Delonte is capable of stringing together a few hot games and suddenly this series can take a very different twist. In the playoffs so far Delonte has averaged 10ppg, 5apg and 50% shooting from downtown.
Wally Szczerbiak is a bit more reliable I think, then again he’s an ex-player and they can always do just about anything. He’ll be focused and come to play but after being traded 3-4 times, after all the injuries, the years of experience, the ups and the downs … I think he’ll be less vengeful. Focused, play hard and look to beat his old team but not trying to make a point. Wally is more likely to be a simple set shooter with the odd bit of mustard of the hot dog, but primarily a set shooter.
Wally had a tough opening round series. Over the first five games he shot just 36% from the field and 25% (4-16) from three. He was only scoring 8ppg. That was before he erupted for a career playoff high of 26 points (9-18, 6-13) in game six. Hopefully this snaps him out of his shooting funk because they need his scoring/shooting to put him on the floor for big minutes. Overall on the season in Cleveland he’s shooting only 36% and 37%, well down from his 47% and 40% career averages. Wally is capable of better and Cleveland need it.
Defensively these two caused me major doubts before the playoffs and even more so at the time of the trade. They’ve astounded me, and so has Mike Brown who’s a defensive genious, they’ve become very solid team defenders. Guys who make good defensive rotations and play smart defense. Wally has done it off and on but not in recent years, team defense that is, and I didn’t expect to ever see it. Neither is a good man-to-man defender (Rondo/Ray) and that will cause problems but if they can defend like this then the team is in much better shape than I first thought. Their team defense allows the Cavs to continue defending the three point line with such expertise and that’ll be important against the sweet shooting Celtics. Wally did an admirable job on Caron Butler in the first round also holding him to below par numbers, if he can repeat the feat against Ray the Celtics will be a world of trouble.
Big Z. Big Ben. Joe Smith. Varajeo. That’s a world of experience and talent. All of these guys have been through wars on the court. All of these guys play good defense. All of these guys can block shots. All of these guys rebound well. Two of these guys can score. This is a good combination when they avoid the Varajeo-Wallace pairing.
Lots of shooters, lots of shooters. We’ve covered Wally and Delonte who are both quality shooters. Now let’s mention the best of the bunch, Danny Gibson. For his career he’s shooting 43.4% from downtown. For the season he’s shooting 44%. For the playoffs he’s shooting 50% from three and 47% overall. He’s on fire right now. This guy is a truly great shooter and he’s a clutch shooter. He’ll cause Boston problems, they have to be very discplined with Gibson.
All these shooters allow Cleveland to space the floor brilliantly for LeBron.
- Devin Brown. Mr. Do It All. Devin has been a key cog in the Cavs bench all season, affecting games in every way possible. A drive, a fastbreak, good man-to-man D, a turnover, a block, a steal, a rebound, an assist, a dunk, a jump shot. It could be anything. He’s been phenomenal for the Cavs and has played very well for the team late in games.
- Pavlovic was expected to and did miss the entire first round. I’ve heard no injury report update but it was possible he might return in the second round. If he’s healthy to play he’ll give them a much better defensive option on Ray Allen. Plus some scoring, streaky scoring. Update: Pavlovic is healthy and is available.
- Tempo = It’s easier for LeBron to outscore the Big Three if they keep the tempo slow. Run when it presents but look to take your time otherwise. Force the tempo off the backboards and defensively.
- “You can’t really take away anything from that team (without giving up something else),” Brown said. “That’s a great basketball team. You’ve got to see if you can guard guys as much as possible without double-teaming.” Mike Brown wants to be able to use single coverage against Pierce, KG and Ray. In order to stop the three point shooting and passing of the Celtics.
Do the Cavs cause more problems than the Hawks for Boston, if so why? Hell yes
- LeBron is much better than Joe Johnson
- Cavs have the shooters to bring Boston’s doubles and traps back to earth
- Cavs are the best rebounding team in the league
- Cavs have experience, post-season experience
- Cavs have the most fourth quarter comebacks in the league. Boston crumbled late against Atlanta. LeBron has become one of the league’s finest finishers.
- Cavs have a better low post scorer in Z
- Cavs have better defensive options on Garnett with Varajeo and Joe. Not so much Ben.
- Cavs have just as much shot blocking with their four bigs
- The Locomotive is a one-man fast break. The Cavs score more fastbreak points than the Hawks and play at a quicker pace
- Washington’s ability to up the tempo was supposed to be their advantage, it worked out the opposite way. Beware of Cleveland’s one man break.
- The Cavs are one of the best defensive teams in the league. This isn’t Atlanta. Baskets are going to be a lot harder to get.
- Delonte is a more troublesome matchup for Boston than Mike Bibby
Well they’ve got some problems and they’ve got some good things. Let’s start with a few problems and finish on a higher note:
The Pierce Situation
Pierce has had a pretty bad season against the Cavs. He’s struggled to score, struggled with his shot, has forced the play, has been prone to selfish play, has turned the ball over a lot. It hasn’t been good, not up to his usual high standards.
Here are Paul Pierce’s averages; 13.5ppg, 3.8rpg, 4rpg on 37% shooting and 25% from three, and added 4 turnovers a night.
Then I thought, nevermind, just one of those wierd things, after all Pierce has had spectacular games against LeBron in the past.
2006-07 – Just one game played because of injury (early season game). The one game he did play he had 19 and 9 on 28% shooting adding three turnovers.
2005-06 – Three games played. He put in 33/9/5 but he also shot 41% and had 4 turnovers a game
2004-05 – Three games played. He averaged 21/5/5 shooting 39.5% and turning the ball over 4 times a game.
So now where are we? Each year he shoots badly and turns the ball over. He had some better games but still had issues and now he’s no longer force fed as many opportunities as in the past.
LeBron is strong enough to battle with Pierce in the post, LeBron is quick enough to cover Pierce, LeBron is long enough to challenge Pierce’s shot. James has also turned himself into a fine defensive player, well above average at this point, unlike previous years were he was there for the taking.
Pierce isn’t exactly coming off a world beater series against the Hawks either. 18ppg on 45%. Didn’t take advantage of good matchup nearly as well as we have come to expect from him. His minutes were down around 33.5mpg which is low for Pierce normally, and very low for a playoff series. Then again the C’s trounced the Hawks at home four times limiting his minutes. Even in the away games he only played 36/36/35. Bill Simmons, ESPN Sports Guy, said Pierce was carrying a back injury from the season, I haven’t seen any poor mobility on the court so I felt it was close enough to healed but perhaps not.
The Issues From Atlanta
- Offensive execution. At all times against the Hawks 3 of the 4 best Celtics scorers had a matchup they could exploit to their great advantage and they didn’t do it consistently. Nobody could guard Kevin Garnett in the low post, yet he went away from the low post against Atlanta once the regular season arrived (killed them there in the regular season). Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, one of them had an easy matchup at all times. Joe Johnson is a good defender but Marvin and Josh were easy pickings. Yet both failed to attack them the right away consistently. Ray killed Childress on off the ball screens getting 3-4 feet of daylight every time but didn’t do it with any regularity. Pierce killed Marvin in the post, but didn’t go there consistently enough. Pierce could destroy Childress off the dribble but settled for long jumpers. Rondo was the third, he was too quick for Bibby, he had a good series but he didn’t have enough opportunities to truly exploit Bibby like he could have.
- None of the Big Three stepped up. Nobody came and made it their team, nobody came and led them when times get tough, nobody came and took the scoring burden when times were tough. Pierce did at times but not with regularity. Ray was the same Ray throughout. Kevin didn’t step it up.
- Execution under pressure. Their were only 3 close games in the 7 game series, Atlanta won all three. Boston collapsed and feel apart twice in fourth quarters and were simply outplayed in the third game’s fourth quarter. The young Hawks made Boston look the inexperienced side with their veteran like composure. Several Celtics players looked visibly uncertain on the court during these periods.
- Atlanta attacked them on the offensive backboards well. Boston were the fifth worst in the playoffs so far at protecting their backboards (marginal gap between 5 and midtable) at 69.5%. For example Orlando, Cleveland (Cavs led at 76.6%) and Phoenix both corralled 76% of their defensive boards.
- How they defended Joe Johnson as covered above in the Cavs section.
- Celtics second unit shrank in terms of production
- Doc Rivers was wild with his rotation at times. In Game Six he went 12 deep inside the first 13 minutes. Doc has to stabalize that rotation and keep calm. Doc also went to all bench player units too often, once is too often and it was more than once, that needs to stop right now. One of the Big Three needs to be on the floor at all times like they were in Game Seven until the game was out of hand.
The Big Three vs LeBron and co.
The biggest advantage Boston has is the diversity of top drawer offensive options, having three go-to scorers who can out-gun LeBron James.
Here’s some stats: As the go-to guys on their own lottery squads the year prior the big three averaged a combined 73.8ppg. That was obviously going to drop but I wanted to point it out to show how much firepower is there if they could unleash it well. This season they averaged a combined 56ppg during the regular season. In the first round against Atlanta they averaged 55ppg. Against Cleveland during the regular season they combined for 53ppg. It’s also worth noting that the Big Three have only scored 20+ points apiece in the same game three times this whole season and not once in the playoffs. They’ve come might close a bunch of times but not quite there, that balance where they all score big is rare.
Fifty Five points a game isn’t that hard for LeBron to match. Think about it, LeBron’s giving you 30-35, Z is giving you another 10-15, all’s it takes is one guy to score 10 points and you’ve matched Boston’s Big Three.
The Celtics Big Three has to step it up, they have to dominate this series and they have to be dominant scorers.
Kevin has a huge advantage on the low post against Ben Wallace. I’ve never been overly enamoured with Ben’s man-to-man defense, it’s never been excellent, it’s only ever been above average. What made Ben a great defender was his help defense and ability to disrupt teams with it. He’s not a stopper. He’s especially poor at defending Garnett. KG ate him alive earlier in the year when Big Ben was in Chicago and he’s done well against Wallace throughout the years. Wallace is simply too small to bother KG.
Drew Gooden was a much more effective defender. Drew was a legit 6-10 to 6-11 with a seven foot wingspan. Drew was a good athlete that could move his feet and jump well. He was also a strong man-to-man defender. KG couldn’t shoot over the top of him like Ben. Having Wallace there means Kevin’s whole midrange game (his greatest strength) is wide open. Having Ben there means KG’s turnaround J (his best post move) is wide open. All game, every game.
It’s worth noting Joe Smith has been one of the best defenders on Garnett over the years and that he did a great job this season against him. He has legit size, is an excellent one-on-one defender and having played with KG for several years he knows his moves cold. He’s also a better offensive option than Ben.
Kevin Garnett is going to have a very interesting defensive matchup also. He’ll have Ben Wallace, a non-offensive threat. Kevin is going to be able to cheat off of Wallace all night long and his help defense could end up being a difference maker. He’s got to be careful once the shot goes up though because Ben’s a top offensive rebounder.
Ray has the biggest mismatch of the Big Three. He’ll have Wally, Brown or Gibson through the night. In the regular season he torched the Cavs for 23.8ppg on 52% shooting and 41% shooting from downtown. He also picked up 5 boards and 3.5 dimes a game against Cleveland. This was the third highest scoring average Ray had against a single team (GSW and Portland considerably higher). Ray scored only 16ppg against the Hawks, he has to have a good series for Boston to win. He has to have a good series for Boston just to be competitive if Pierce struggles. Time for Ray to shoulder some more of the load.
Rondo has another weak defensive point guard to feast on. Delonte West and Danny Gibson are both vulnerable to quick point guards which Rajon certainly is. Delonte is a below par defender while Gibson is about average. They’re both considerably better than Mike Bibby defensively but they’re both their for the taking. Rondo has to take advantage of them, especially on any fast breaking opportunities.
Rondo did a great job of shadowing Bibby, pressuring Bibby and keeping Bibby out of the paint. He has to continue his excellent defense in this series. Remember Delonte can’t dribble with his right hand, don’t think Rondo has forgotten that.
The Backup Bigs
Glen Davis, PJ Brown, Leon Powe. Who should play?
PJ Brown didn’t play against Cleveland last season and I can’t remember much of how he matched up with Ilgauskas in the past. He might be a very good option, he might not. Glen Davis had some of his best games against the Cavs. He was the only big man to effectively bother Ilguaskas, he was able to stay low and force him away from the rim and keep him off the backboards. Perkins didn’t do that, Powe didn’t do that, KG sort of did that. Glen was the best and he’s an excellent option for this series. But do you sacrifice Powe and everything he’s brought to the table over the past few months? Tough to tell but Glen was the better option of the two against Cleveland during the regular season.
I expect a very close series where either team can win but the more and more I think about it, the more I think LeBron could pull it off. I’m going to go with the underdog Cavs in 7.