Boston Celtics: 66-16, 1st seed
Cleveland Cavaliers: 45-37, 4th seed
Head-to-Head: Split the regular-season series 2-2
Basketball is a team game. Good teams (usually) win out over teams largely centered around one or two superstars. But while it will take a solid overall team effort from the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers for either one to advance to the Conference Finals, this one may come down to which one’s superstar(s) dominate the others.
LeBron James has shown time and time again early in his career that he will not (and at times simply can not) be deterred by physical intimidation in the playoffs. We saw him respond in a big way last year against the Detroit Pistons, and we saw him dominate in Round 1 despite an onslaught of hard fouls, cheap shots, and post-game trash talk from the Washington Wizards. There aren’t many qualities that James and Detroit’s Rasheed Wallace have in common with their respective games, but there is one: nothing gets them going more than an opponent who gets in their face or tries to push them around. If Boston thinks they’re going to partly contain James by getting into his head and roughing him up, they’re wrong.
And of course nobody in the NBA runs his mouth or gets pumped up to the point of being scary as much as Kevin Garnett, this year’s Defensive Player of the Year and the heart and soul of the Boston Celtics. His team may have stumbled through their first round bout with the Atlanta Hawks, but KG stood tall in averaging 21 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2 steals, and 1.4 blocks over those seven games. That impressive steals number includes 6 of ’em in Game 4. He’ll likely be pitted against the slipping Ben Wallace for most of this series, a matchup that could bring the best out of Big Ben but more likely will be a serious advantage for KG.
Even if former defensive superstar Wallace and his teammates do succeed in bottling up Garnett, they still have two more All-Stars to worry about. And those two could be in for an even bigger series than KG.
Their numbers weren’t so hot against the Hawks, but Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are too good to both chip in a second consecutive so-so series. Allen, especially, should explode against the inferior players (Devin Brown, Daniel Gibson, Damon Jones, etc.) that Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown has at his disposal to throw at the sharp-shooting Celtic. The 11-year vet put a hurtin’ on the Cavs during the regular season, averaging 23.8 points (including 3 triples/per) on 51% shooting, 5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.5 steals. Cleveland can’t let that keep happening.
This should be an entertaining series and one that its eventual victor will have won in part for playing better overall team basketball. This series’ combined Big Four certainly aren’t the whole story or the only story—we have more on the supporting casts below. But the spotlight will shine brightest on LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, four All-Stars capable of putting their team on their back and almost single-handedly turning the tide of the entire series. Let’s see who actually does it.
ETB breaks down the Celtics-Cavaliers series and rolls out our predictions after the jump…
Watching Paul Pierce and LeBron James jaw and go at each other for the next week or so will be fun, but I’m really looking forward to watching the duo of emerging point guards in this series line up and battle. Rajon Rondo, a 22-year-old asked to keep an engine driven by future Hall of Famers running smoothly in just his second NBA season, is a pesky man defender who plays the lanes well and can turn a steal into 2 points off a turnover in a flash. His counterpart, former Celtic Delonte West, can do that too. Both can knock down open J’s. Both somewhat resemble Middle Earth inhabitants.
These guys very well might cancel each other out, but it’ll be interesting to see if one gets the advantage over the other, especially since they practiced against each other as teammates last year. I look for West to feel comfortable playing in front of the Celtic faithful and have a nice series; in the regular season, he averaged 19.5 points and 64% FG/per against his old team (both stats more than he did against any other team in the league) along with 4.5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1.5 threes.
The Cavs and Celtics both bring long-range bombers off the bench to spell the backcourt starters. Last year’s Conference Finals hero Daniel Gibson capped off Round 1 with a 22 point and 4 three-pointers night, his best game of the series. Damon Jones hardly played, but by you know you probably know what he’s out there for—launching triples—which happens to be the only thing he’s going to contribute. Wally Szczerbiak will slide over to the two spot as well. Boston counters with their own three-point shooter in Eddie House (who scored just 3 points in Round 1) as well as wily ol Big Balls Cassell, who averaged 13 minutes a night against the Hawks, struggled with his shooting, but always has the gumption to take—and occasionally make—big shots when his team needs him to.
Again: Kevin Garnett, this year’s DPOY, bodying up against four-time DPOY winner Ben Wallace has the potential to develop into an intense test of strength (more on Big Ben below). And you know that Pierce vs. LeBron is going to be good too. But I want to see how Anderson Varejao, Cleveland’s main source of instant energy off the bench, fairs when Boston’s own difference-maker, Leon Powe, is on the court at the same time. Powe has worked himself into Doc Rivers’ permanent rotation just 2 years removed from being taken late in the second round of the ’06 draft, and is coming off a fine series against Atlanta.
Veteran Joe Smith spells Wallace; Wally World is too unreliable and one-dimensional to count on in crunchtime. Boston has defensive ace, competent three-point shooter, and overall jerk James Posey in their pocket, as well as
championship ring mercenary veteran P.J. Brown and rotund rookie Glen Davis. Both of these frontcourts have guys who can rebound, so expect some scrappy battles for boards and loose balls. It’s crucial for the Celtics to limit the Cavaliers’ offensive rebounds, specifically: the Cavs led the NBA in that category during the regular season with 13.3/per.
The Cavs have a great advantage in 7-3 Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who has more range and a sweeter jumper than you’d think by just looking at him. He may lumber up and down the court and appear to be rather aloof at times, but he’s Cleveland’s second best player and coming off one of the best overall seasons of his career (14.1 points, 9.3 boards, 47% FG, 1.6 blocks). His ability to hit 15-footers with a high percentage will draw Kendrick Perkins (and/or Garnett if Rivers switches him off the offensively challenged Wallace) out of the paint and help free things up in the lane for LeBron. We’re big fans of Perk, but Ilgauskas could light him up.
Two things to keep an eye on as the series unfolds:
Ben Wallace – Everybody knows Big Ben’s game has been in a steady decline the past four seasons or so, but it’s been especially tough for him this year. It’s gotten to the point where it’s looking less and less likely as each mediocre game passes that he’ll stay in most any NBA team’s regular rotation past the two years left on his massive contract. The 33-year-old was a non-factor for most of the Cavaliers’ Round 1 series against the Wizards, and at times even invisible. The 23:11 minutes he averaged is by far a career-low in a playoffs series, and he pulled down more than 10 rebounds in a single game just once. Wallace also averaged just 1 blocked shot and way under 1 steal/per.
The defensive presence of Detroit Pistons-era Ben Wallace will be sorely needed against Kevin Garnett & Co. in this round, however, for the Cavaliers to keep the score and series close. If he can rekindle that spirit, that emotion, that impact he had for so many years with Detroit, there may still be hope for him. If he’s outhustled and outrebounded by the likes of Leon Powe and Glen Davis, however, the end could come even even sooner for one of the NBA’s best defensive players of the past decade.
Homecourt Advantage – The Cavs have won 10 playoff games on the road and counting in the past three seasons—we know they can win in other people’s building. The Celtics dropped all three Round 1 games in Atlanta to the 37-45 Hawks, so we’re still waiting for this first victory away from TD Banknorth Garden. Now, Boston was 31-10 on the road during the regular season, so I’m not implying that this is something they haven’t proven they can do or that it’s necessarily a trend that will continue throughout these playoffs. Still. As good as they’ve been this year, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the Boston Celtics… including whether or not they can consistently respond to and overcome the pressure of postseason road games.
Andrew: Boston Celtics in five.
Brian: Boston Celtics in seven.