The Main Story — Cleveland’s Big Men
Cleveland’s Starting Lineup
Mo Williams + Anthony Parker + LeBron James + Antawn Jamison + Shaquille O’Neal
The Boston Celtics will outplay the Cavs while this lineup is in the game. The combination of Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison and Shaquille O’Neal makes Cleveland vulnerable defensively particularly against strong point guard play in pick and roll situations + transition offense. Look for Boston to create a lot of problems in both of those areas through Rajon Rondo early in games.
Over the 2007/08 and 2008/09 seasons, the Cleveland Cavaliers did an excellent job covering Ray Allen. This is due to adequate-to-very good man to man defense from Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West + excellent team defense from their big men particularly when covering off the ball screens (pin downs). They showed strongly on the screens, forced Ray up high, took away the easy catch and shoot opportunity, allowed the SG defender to recover, and forced Ray into more difficult shooting opportunities. Unfortunately, this is not a strength for either Antawn Jamison or Shaquille O’Neal so Ray Allen can create better opportunities for himself against the Cavs starting lineup than he has in previous seasons. Combine this with the opportunities he’ll receive in transition (layups + the spot up three) and Ray Allen should be more influential against the Cavs than he has been in the past.
Varejao and Hickson
Everything changes when Anderson Varejao and JJ Hickson take the court for Cleveland.
The first major change is on the defensive end
- They get a talented interior defender in Varejao to shore up their interior D
- Two quality transition defenders to take away Boston’s transition game
- Two quality pick and roll defenders to limit Rondo’s penetration and playmaking
- Defend off the ball screens (for Ray Allen) better.
Their entire defense tightens up and takes away Boston’s easy scoring opportunities.
Furthermore, their presence opens up the offense for Cleveland.
- Both are dangerous players in transition and open up the Cavs running game. That turns a serious disadvantage (starting lineup) into a large advantage.
- They also move extremely well without the ball and create more player movement from the big men, creating good passing targets for LeBron & Co. for easy looks around the rim. Both players are more comfortable standing 15-18 feet from the rim, stretching out the Celtics defense and then darting to the front of the rim for an easy score.
- That mobility and quickness, that athleticism, also shows itself in the pick and roll offense. It makes it more difficult for the opposing team to contain LeBron + take away the player rolling to the rim + rotate out in time to shooters.
- Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace struggle to provide effective pick and roll defense (both Celtics’ players) and team defense (Sheed only) against this duo. It forces the Celtics to go smaller with Kevin Garnett at center and someone else at the four spot in order to keep LeBron from making plays (either scoring or passing).
- Both players mobility is also a major issue on the offensive glass with Garnett (not as agile as he once was in box outs) + Sheed struggling to keep their bodies in front of them.
Basically, Cleveland is hugely more effective with these two players on the floor — especially together — and Boston struggles
Cleveland finished first in the league in rebounding differential with a +4.0 nightly average. They ranked second in the league in defensive rebounding percentage and around 21st in offensive rebounding percentage.
Boston finished 25th in the league (sixth worst) in rebounding differential with a nightly -1.5 average.They finished 28th in offensive rebounding percentage and 13th in offensive rebounding percentage.
Boston upped their rebounding against Miami (11th in rebounding differential with a +1.0 average) in the first round and out-rebounded Miami by +2.0 per game.
- The main difference for them was the improved rebounding from Rajon Rondo + Tony Allen playing ahead of Marquis Daniels + Glen Davis playing ahead of Rasheed Wallace. The rebounding from Rondo and Allen gave them an increase in rebounding contributions from the perimeter, something they badly needed due to the subpar rebounding from their wings (Ray, Paul, Marquis).
- Their rebounding was further helped by Miami’s Jermaine O’Neal playing less minutes, Joel Anthony playing increased minutes, and Udonis Haslem not hitting the boards as hard as he normally does.
Basically, I would expect the Celtics to be better than their regular season numbers indicate on the backboards. I would expect them to be slightly above average due to the three issues I highlighted for them above (Rondo, TA, Davis).
Still, the Celtics are not as good as the Cavs and Cleveland should have a small advantage with their immobile bigs and a good advantage with their mobile bigs (better offensive rebounders).
Boston were one of the league’s worst teams at turning over the ball (26th in turnover percentage). Their careless play continued in the first round against Miami — unlike two years ago when they improved in the playoffs — and figures to be a problem for them again in the next round.
These turnover problems have been offset, for the most part, by their stellar job on the other end of the floor. Boston amongst the league’s worst turnover offenders for the last three years but in each season they have had a positive turnover differential. The reason is that they force their opponent (2nd in league in opposing turnover percentage) to turn the ball over more than they do themselves.
As for Cleveland, they do a solid job taking care of the ball and a poor job forcing turnovers + overall have a comparable turnover differential as Boston.
Still, enough background ….
Tturnovers are a big story in this series because Boston has had problems with the Cavs athleticism when they go with their mobile big men. Their length in the passing lanes has caused turnovers and helped Cleveland get easy points in transition. Watch out for this problem against those matchups.
Cleveland shouldn’t be able to force turnovers when their less mobile big men are in the game. Cleveland do not gamble as much and instead force opposing teams to shoot over the top of their length. If Boston starts turning the ball over in this situation it’ll likely be the unforced kind (misplaced passes, fumbles, illegal picks).
Cleveland can also create some problems by going big on the perimeter and having LeBron defend the point. Allowing LeBron to play deep off of Rondo and clog the paint. Making dribble penetration difficult. This matchup will be hard to sustain though because Cleveland have nobody else capable of defending Paul Pierce (Pierce destroys Moon) for long periods of time. It would be best used while Pierce is resting but Mike Brown will usually choose to rest LeBron at the same time. So while this is an option, it likely won’t be used much.
Miami were quite successful with the zone defense against Boston when they had both Tony Allen and Rajon Rondo in the game together. Cleveland should consider doing the same thing.
Four Man Bench Units
Doc Rivers needs to avoid using four man bench units in this series + be very careful about using the Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis big man combination. Both scenarios could create a lot of problems for Boston when matched up against the Cavs more talented second unit.
Some Individual Matchups
Garnett vs Jamison
Kevin Garnett has a huge advantage against Antawn Jamison in the mid post and low post areas. Garnett was aggressive with his scoring against the Cavs in the playoffs two years ago and the Celtics will need more of the same out of him in this series. Unfortunately, Garnett hasn’t shown that assertiveness often (and certainly not regularly) this season or in the first round against Miami. So how large of an advantage this turns out to be remains to be seen.
On the other end of the floor, Jamison’ s shot making ability will put more pressure on Garnett defensively than the Cavs have had in the past. More so with his positioning off the ball when trying to provide help for LeBron than in one-on-one scenarios.
Antawn Jamison has been disappointing as an offensive threat — 15.8 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 53% — since joining the Cavs at mid-season. He did, however, step it up in the previous round against Chicago (19.5ppg on 59% TS%). Still, Jamison is another question mark, a variable, who’s production could vary widely.
Jamison did cause big problems for the Celtics three years ago during their title campaign but I’m not expecting a repeat of that performance. That was while Gilbert was out injured and Jamison was allowed more touches than he figures to get in this series. Most of Jamison’s offense will come by playing off of LeBron + in the second unit rather than a direct Jamison vs Garnett situation.
Overall, we have two capable players who haven’t been as assertive as they could be, and who, consequently, have seen a big decrease in their production levels. I think Garnett has a better chance of increasing his play because of the quality matchup + the likelihood of additional touches whereas Jamison is likely to remain in his secondary role offensively.
Still, whether this is a good advantage for Boston (normal level of play) or an excellent advantage (if Garnett is frisky) remains to be seen.
LeBron and Pierce
Nobody in the league bothers Paul Pierce as much as LeBron James.
- LeBron’s athleticism — namely his strength, lateral quickness and length — cause Pierce huge problems. As does his defensive smarts and overall defensive quality.
- But the more important problem is LeBron’s offensive play and stamina. He saps a huge amount of Paul’s energy (forcing him to play constant defense) and regularly leaves Pierce worn out when it comes to the other end of the floor.
- Energy and stamina is even more of an issue for Pierce this season than it has been in the past with Pierce regularly showing himself capable of putting forth a dominant offensive performance for 36-40 minutes. A quarter or two here and there, absolutely, but full games of dominance are few and far between. Add his defensive responsibilities onto his declining physical state and this figures to be a very tough assignment for Pierce.
While, nobody bothers Pierce as much as LeBron it also true that few bother LeBron as much as Pierce …
- Pierce is an excellent man-to-man defender with impressive lateral quickness and very good strength. He does a superb job of staying in front of LeBron and making it difficult for LeBron to get to the rim in the halfcourt setting.
- Pierce’s defensive play is also obviously aided in a huge way by Boston’s high quality team defense. Having Perk and Garnett behind him standing on either side of the lane makes it difficult for LeBron to get a clear path to the rim and allows Pierce time to get back into the chest of LeBron defensively after he has been beaten.
- And while LeBron puts pressure on Pierce with his offense … so too does Pierce to LeBron with his own scoring. Pierce needs to be very aggressive against LeBron and make him work defensively, it’ll make his life easier on the other end of the floor.
- LeBron has been unstoppable in transition. Most of Pierce’s good defense against James comes in the halfcourt setting. Boston need to keep LeBron in the halfcourt to allow Pierce to limit LeBron. Otherwise, Pierce’s defense will not have much of an impact.
This is a large advantage for Cleveland on the whole but there will be periods where Pierce plays LeBron to a standstill + will constantly make his life difficult with his defense.
Rajon Rondo vs Mo Williams
Boston will have a huge advantage over Cleveland at the point guard position when the starting lineup is in the game. Rondo will have the game on a string and dominate the game with his playmaking in transition and off of pick and rolls.
Once Cleveland go with their more athletic big men, those opportunities will decrease for Rondo and the matchup will be closer to even. Rondo’s impact will be more all-round play while Mo’s will be scoring + shooting + offnensive efficiency.
Kendrick Perkins vs Shaquille O’Neal
Kendrick Perkins is the best low post defender in the NBA.
Perk will neutralize Shaquille O’Neal’s offensive threat. He will allow Boston to defend Shaq straight up, man-to-man, which will stop Shaq’s post up threats from creating offensive opportunities + ball/player movement for the rest of the Cavs. Shaq is no longer a dominant enough scorer to punish such a strategy … when matched up against a talented post defender like Perkins.
Anthony Parker vs Ray Allen
There isn’t a huge difference here. Ray Allen will score well playing off of Rondo against the starting unit but this matchup will be played to a standstill (for the most part) once the Cavs more athletic big men enter the fray.
- Backup Big Men –Cleveland has a huge advantage with their backup big men, Varejao and Hickson, versus the Celtics Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis.
- Backup Guards — The Cavs also have a small advantage at the backup guard spot between Delonte West and Tony Allen. Cleveland will also have an advantage over the streaky Nate Robinson should Boston decide to play him.
- Backup Wings — These matchups are largely neutral. Tony Allen vs Jamario Moon. Also, fairly even once Michael Finley enters the contest.
Cleveland can get a lot of joy by putting Antawn Jamison at the small forward position in the second unit against either Tony Allen or Michael Finley. Neither player is big enough to cover him in the post and Finley isn’t quick enough to stop his face up game.
Delonte West is an important bench player to note. He has provided very good man-to-man defense against Ray Allen in the past and excellent team defense playing off of Rajon Rondo. Combine those defensive contributions with his sharp-shooting + ability to handle pressure and you have a player who could make a big difference.
Tony Allen has been playing very good basketball for Boston. His defensive play against point guards and as a stopper against Wade have been superb. He has also utilized his size well against opposing point guards — an issue if Mo Williams is in the second unit like normal and defending TA but not if Delonte is the backup — and has done a good job on the backboards.
It remains to be seen how effective Tony Allen will be against LeBron James though. That is a big variable for this series. He has the quickness to trouble James on the perimeter but once LeBron elevates for his jumper there is no way TA can contest the shot heavily enough. So it’ll be about which strength wins out — TA’s quickness or LeBron’s jumper — and that will likely vary game to game.
If TA cannot effectively defend LeBron, then Doc will be forced to turn to Marquis Daniels who did an admirable (solid) job against LeBron during the regular season. If Daniels plays though, Boston’s rebounding will drop off and Cleveland should have a larger advantage there. Boston will struggle to play both Daniels + TA together because of their lack of shooting ability. It’ll put a lot of pressure on their offense.
Rasheed Wallace’s effectiveness will depend on the Cavs rotation choices. He will be a very effective weapon when matched up against Shaquille O’Neal or Zydrunas Ilgauksas but a liability when faced with Anderson Varejao or JJ Hickson.
Sheed’s lack of mobility makes him a liability defensively in transition, pick and rolls and team defense against the latter two (both players move very well without the ball). He also struggles to battle their mobility on box-outs for rebounding opportunities and they can take away his jump shot on the other end of the floor. Varejao also does a very good job defending him in the post but Sheed can score on Hickson. Overall, huge negative contributions from Sheed against these two.
Now, against Shaq and Big Z, Sheed’s lack of mobility is not an issue. He can match those player’s quickness and agility + can provide effective man-to-man defense against them. Wallace can also provide good team defense against Shaq (interior defense, around the rim) but not against Ilgauskas (pick and pop threat, more time away from the rim). Offensively, Wallace’s three point jump shot is a huge problem for Cleveland. The Celtics can put him in pick and rolls/pops with either Rondo or Pierce and create good scoring opportunities on a regular basis … simply put, neither Shaq or Ilgauskas can cover the pick and roll adequately + neither can contain the dribbler and recover to a pick and pop shooter like Wallace.
In summary, Wallace is a useful weapon against the Cavs immobile seven footers but a massive liability against their athletic big men.
Cleveland is the more talented team and should win this series. How comfortably they win this series will depend on how Mike Brown chooses to dole out minutes.
If he plays his immobile big men considerable minutes, then Boston will be a very tough opponent and this series will go right down to the wire (6 or 7 mostly hotly contested games). If Mike Brown plays his athletic big men big minutes, then Cleveland will win comfortably in five or six games.
Boston will be more successful the more (1) Cleveland’s starting lineup plays (2) the more Cleveland play Shaq + Big Z.