Guest Post: A Second Look at the Eastern Conference Playoffs

Cavaliers Bobcats BasketballThe Cleveland Cavaliers had another statement victory last night to improve to 45-14 and now own a decent lead in the Eastern Conference as well as the NBA. Last night was fun to see how the new-look Cavs match up against the Celtics, but what about the other Eastern powers? That is the topic for today’s playoff Cavs post, as guest writer Matt Manuszak, returns to WFNY to complete his previews with three more possible playoff opponents.

These teams are currently the #’s 2-4 teams in the Eastern Conference and represent a wide variety of scenarios for the next two months of the regular season. The Cavaliers are in very good position to get the top seed in the conference now but as we learned last season, anything can happen between the top teams in each conference.

You can follow Matt on Twitter @the_real_matt_m. You can also check out his content at The Ram, the newspaper at Fordham University where he writes a regular column titled “The Smush Parker Project.” His analysis is below the jump and hope y’all enjoy:

Cleveland Cavs (45-14) vs. Atlanta Hawks (36-20)
Previous Matchups: 12/29: CLE 95 – ATL 84 [Box] and 12/30: CLE 106 – ATL 101 [Box]

Possible Playoff Seed: Chance at #1 seed = 0.42%, Chance at #2 seed = 14.55%, Chance at #3 seed = 40.67%, Chance at #4 seed = 42.87% and Not Top Four Seed = 1.49%

This is going to sound a little nuts, but I’m struggling to comprehend the Cavs’ home-and-home victories over the Hawks in late December. Though both games were wins, the two contests couldn’t have been any more different.

In the first game, LeBron had one of his worst performances of the season, scoring only 14 points on 20 shots (but still notching 10 dimes and 8 boards because, well, he’s LeBron). However, Mo, Shaq, Z, and Delonte all each shot over 50% eFG and provided the sort of help that LeBron will need come June on the offensive end. Defensively, AP and LeBron in the 4th combined to shut down All-Star Joe Johnson as he only notched 15 points on 14 shots. Josh Smith was pretty solid on both ends with an efficient 15 and 8, and Jamal Crawford was lights out, scoring 26 on 17 shots, including 4 of 5 from the land of three. However, as has become the Cavs’ wont, they were able to shut down the Hawks for one quarter, giving up only 10 points in an incredible 4th quarter defensive display to win walking away.

The next night was literally the exact opposite. An angry LeBron went off for a filthy 48 points on a ludicrous 23 shots (74% eFG) along with 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks: one of his best performances ever. Mo was off, posting a 39% eFG with 14 points on 14 shots, and Z and Delonte both did not have a field goal. For the Hawks, Joe Johnson did his best LeBron impression, posting 35 on 25 shots (66% eFG), while J-Smoove and Jamal Crawford were relatively quiet, as each went for only 11 points on sub 40% eFG. The only constant was another knockout defensive 4th quarter for the Cavs, who held the Hawks to just 16 points in the come-from-behind effort.

So, what can we take from these games? The Hawks are a talented team to be sure, and their off-season addition of Jamal Crawford certainly makes them more fearsome. However, offensively, they really aren’t that special. Most of their scoring, especially recently, comes from isolation possessions. Joe Johnson’s LeBron impression isn’t limited to that game in late-December. He increasingly has become a bit of a chucker on offense, dribbling down the shot clock before launching a long jumper. While he is a good enough scorer for this to work sometimes, it certainly isn’t as effective as the playmaking, driving competitor he can be.

When Johnson sits, Crawford assumes the main offensive role, as the entire scheme is designed to get him free off of numerous screens. Crawford is a quick, jump-shooting guard that the Cavs struggle against, and if he is on, there aren’t many in the league who can stop him. Our front court has simply been too big for theirs, but our backcourt has to stay competitive scoring-wise with Johnson and Crawford. Josh Smith is an athletic, much improved player, but the Cavs were able to force him to take jumpers. Defensively, look for Marvin Williams to start on LeBron: he is actually a pretty underrated defender, and Josh Smith has given LeBron trouble in the past with his length when he switches over. This is where Antawn will help: if he can draw Smith out onto the perimeter with his range, thus limiting Smith’s impact as a help-side defender, the Cavs will be able to score in the paint much more easily.

Since Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia aren’t great offensive threats, Shaq and Z were able to stay home much of the night and deter dribble penetration, especially from Johnson and Smith, allowing JJ and Andy to pester Smith off the ball and show aggressively on Crawford off of picks. While the Hawks are a great team, the Cavs simply match up extremely well. Prediction: Cavs in 5.

Cleveland Cavs (45-14) vs. Orlando Magic (39-19)
Previous Matchups: 11/11: CLE 102 – ORL 93 [Box], 2/11: CLE 115 – ORL 106 [Box] and 2/21: CLE 95 – ORL 101 [Box]

Possible Playoff Seed: Chance at #1 seed = 3.12%, Chance at #2 seed = 67.51%, Chance at #3 seed = 21.41%, Chance at #4 seed = 7.88% and Not Top Four Seed = 0.08%

This may sound a bit cocky, but the Cavs’ recent lost to the Magic doesn’t really worry me too much. First, the Cavs were well below season averages at the line (64% from 73%) and (18.8% from 40%). While the Magic are a great defensive team, they are pretty bad at defending the three: teams shoot a 54.2% eFG from three against them, a mark that places Orlando 7th worst in the league at that category. Now, since teams only shoot 47% eFG against the Magic overall, including only 56% at the rim (both marks are second best defensively in the league), the Cavs clearly knew what they were doing in taking 16 3 pointers: they just have to make them.

58890896This series will come down to a few things on both ends: free throw shooting, the foul situation, and guard play. Both teams are below league average on FT%, with the Cavs at 73% and the Magic at 72%: all the Cavs can do is sink their free throws and hope that Dwight misses his. Even though Dwight often splits pairs of free throws, the Cavs cannot afford to have Shaq in foul trouble. Other than maybe Kendrick Perkins of the Celtics, no one can handle Dwight defensively one on one as well as Shaq; certainly not Z, who isn’t quick enough, or Andy, who isn’t big enough. Whichever team’s center picks up his second foul earlier and is forced to the bench in the first quarter will be humongous. Both teams are pretty deep and versatile at for big men: the Cavs can go big with Z and/or Shaq, go for defense with Andy and Leon, or put in a small, quick offensive lineup using JJ or Antawn at the 4. Orlando can counter with Dwight or Gortat, both of whom are 7 ft, as well as Brandon Bass for rebounding and a mid range game, Matt Barnes for small-ball, and Ryan Anderson or Rashard Lewis for a three point threat. While both the Cavs and Magic can use their forward versatility with great success against most teams in the league (which included the Magic against us last year), Mike Brown and Stan van Gundy can match each other’s lineups pretty effectively here in terms of size and capability. Thus, much of the game will come down to guard play.

Mo has been flat out awful defensively lately: everyone from Rajon Rondo to Darren Collison has eviscerated Mo Gotti, and it’s really gotten to the point where if Mo isn’t scoring, he isn’t helping. Delonte is the superior defender and rebounder, and Boobie is also better at defense and essentially comparable on 3 pointers. What Mo seems to has gotten away from is his dribble penetration: what happened to his patent teardrop “Mo-flow” floater or his stop-and-pop transition jumper? In the past, it seemed like much of Mo’s game was inside-out: he started out with dribble penetration and transition baskets and by the 4th quarter would start to shoot from outside as he gradually moved off the ball, deferring to LeBron. At times lately, he has missed a few early threes and then simply stopped shooting, his confidence shattered. Against the Celtics, he had the mental toughness to come back from an abysmal first half and sink those crucial three corner threes: that’s what we need from Mo. Jameer Nelson is an excellent guard and is much quicker than Mo. He can usually get past Mo on the drive and has a good mid range game: from outside, however, he is streaky. Mo has to be able to stay in front of Jameer and limit the bleeding defensively (because, like it or not, Mo is a terrible defender, and there will be blood) and then try and outscore him in the other end.

As for the other Magic guard, the mercurial Vince Carter, a lot of that depends on Carter more than AP or Delonte. While I normally hate when guards don’t show high on screens, I’m going to make an exception for VC. This may sound odd, but I would much rather let VC try and shoot over AP/Delonte’s reach rather than let him get to the rim. I realize that his shooting % at the rim is by far at a career low, but for about 11 out of 12 quarters, Jump-Shooting Vince wasn’t doing anything to beat us from outside: it wasn’t until his massive dunk on Delonte in the 4th that Vince seemed to wake up and become a real game changer. Yes, Vince can get hot from outside, but a 20 footer from VC is a lower percentage shot than a Dwight Howard hook, or a Rashard Lewis 3, or a Jameer Nelson tear drop: if the Cavs play the percentages with VC, we should be ok.

If Shaq can reasonably contain Dwight, Mo can outscore Jameer, AP/Delonte can keep VC out of the paint, the Cavs sink their FTs, and LeBron stays LeBron, the Cavs should be able to beat the Magic. Prediction: Cavs in 6.

Cleveland Cavs (45-14) vs. Boston Celtics (36-20)
Previous Matchups: 10/27: CLE 89 – BOS 95 [Box] and 2/25: CLE 108 – BOS 88 [Box]

Possible Playoff Seed: Chance at #1 seed = 0.61%, Chance at #2 seed = 14.22%, Chance at #3 seed = 37.38%, Chance at #4 seed = 47.50% and Not Top Four Seed = 0.29%

As much as I enjoyed the second half of our victory over the Celtics, I still think that there hasn’t been an even game yet between these two teams and that they can be a tough matchup. However, I would say that Orlando would be a tougher series. Not only aren’t the Celtics as deep as the Magic, but the Magic simply don’t have the lineup versatility of the Magic or Cavs. I mentioned in the Magic section how both teams have incredible versatility with their lineups and can play small ball, three ball, or grind-it-out half court ball whenever the moment calls for it. The Celtics have one of the best starting fives in the league. The Celtics are the best half-court defensive team in the league. But, if this last game revealed anything, it’s that the Celtics simply aren’t versatile. The Cavs absolutely murdered them with small ball and essentially ran them out of the building in the second half. The biggest points of emphasis in this series would be Mo Williams (see a theme?), big men who played their college ball in North Carolina, and the play of Ray Allen.

While Mo can try to play Jameer Nelson to a draw, that ain’t happening with Rajon Rondo. Already one of the best defensive point guards in the league, Rondo stepped into an elite group last year during the playoffs against Chicago and hasn’t looked back. He has a freakishly long wingspan that allows him to contest most jumpers and clog passing lanes. Further, his extra-large hands have enabled him to become a rather impressive ballhandler, especially in the open court. He is going to beat Mo off the dribble: that seems pretty certain. The keys are whether Mo can try and force him into jumpers and whether Mo can score on him. Rondo is a terrible jump shooter, yet he can still be tricked into shooting if he thinks he’s open. However, Mo doesn’t want to give him too big a cushion, because then Rondo can build a full head of steam and blow by Mo (teams have the same problem guarding D-Wade and LBJ, both players like Rondo who have are better at driving than shooting). The key for Mo is to funnel Rondo into help defense and to try and get him to take as many jumpers as possible. On offense, Mo has to run Rondo ragged. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind taking Mo off the ball a bit and running him off some screens, Reggie Miller style. Anything Mo can do to tire out Rondo will be huge, because Delonte will be able to contain him that much more when he’s in the game. So, to recap for Mo: funnel Rondo to help on defense and force jumpers when possible; tire Rondo out on defense; try and score in transition or in the paint to build confidence before launching threes (this tip is a holdover from the ORL analysis but the premise remains the same).

Garnett Perkins Boston CelticsThe next point concerns Antawn Jamison, JJ Hickson, and Rasheed Wallace (see what I did there?). Antawn had 9 points on 9 shots, which isn’t anything special. But with KG looking more and more feeble with each passing game, Antawn has to be able to exploit that matchup. (Brief side note: I remember a few years back, Mary Schmitt Boyer interviewed Antawn and asked him what he would like his nickname to be: Antawn responded with “Sexual Chocolate.” Is there any way we can bring this back? Just wondering.) Much of KG’s impact defensively comes as a help defender now, so if Antawn can keep him occupied on the perimeter to open up driving lanes for Mo and LeBron, the Cavs would have a huge advantage. JJ just needs to be pure energy out there: hustle after every lose ball, run the floor on offense for easy buckets, and positively hound his assignment on defense. I loved JJ in the smallball lineup, and would like MB to use him as a center in that lineup in short doses. As Windhorst mentioned, the lineup is something that should be used like a changeup to throw teams off: the same goes for JJ. As for Rasheed Wallace, this may sound rather funny, but Sheed scares me more than KG or Perkins on offense. When he is in the post shooting those unblockable fallaways, there aren’t many players in the league who can guard him. Much of Sheed’s game is dependent on motivation: Sheed hates the Cavs, especially Varejao, with whom he was often matched up against when he was a Piston, and seemed to be pretty pumped initially. If Sheed is doing work in the paint and then starts to hit from outside, look out. Andy and JJ’s defense on him will be crucial. Sheed on defense, however, is a different story: JJ and Andy were able to run on him in transition and make weakside cuts in the halfcourt almost at will. The Cavs must attack Sheed when he’s on defense and try and force him to be a chucker on the offensive end.

This has undoubtedly been Ray Allen’s worst shooting season of his career. Having said that, leaving him wide open is inexcusable: I could’ve hit some of those shots, so of course one of the greatest jump shooters ever was going to. Anthony Parker has a pretty nice size advantage on Ray, and if he can get a hand in his face, Ray will not have a good game. Most of his points in the previous game came in transition, so as long as the Cavs get back on defense quickly, they should be able to contain the player also known as Jesus Shuttleworth.

A series with the Celtics would be extremely entertaining: there seems to be some bad blood between the teams, and the Cavs’ loss to the Celtics in the 2008 playoffs is still pretty fresh on many of the players’ minds, especially LeBron. Much of the talk coming out of that series was how Paul Pierce “played him to a draw.” Look for LeBron to be extra motivated in a Celtics series. Further, I expect that the Cavs’ depth, youth, and lineup versatility will be too much for the aging Celtics. Prediction: Cavs in 6.

(The three pictures used in this article are via AP Photo/Chuck Burton, Sam Greenwood/Getty Images and David Zalubowski/Associated Press, respectively. Big thanks go out to our friend Matt for finishing up this analysis right after the Celtics game last night and for all of his help to the constant Cavs content here at WFNY.)

  • Tsunami

    Nice analysis, although I think the fact that the Celtics have sheed is pretty much a guaransheed that we would stomp on them. My biggest concern against the Celtics are Tony Allen, Nate Robinson, and Kendrick Perkins. (I’m serious!)

    Remember it was PJ Brown and Sam Cassell that ultimately decided our fate 2 years ago. The Cavs have a bad habbit of making Marcus Thornton’s out of bench players.

  • boogeyman

    The Cavaliers have their own problems I wouldn’t expect them to run over anyone the way they are currently playing. Add in Mike Brown and this just means more work for LeBron James. I hate to say this but in some way whether it’s a small dark corner of his mind LBJ has to be getting tired of always having to carry this team on his back. None of the other top teams depend on their best player more then the Cavaliers and that is a problem.

  • Mark

    Great post. Gotta disagree about Rasheed though. “If Sheed is doing work in the paint and then starts to hit from outside, look out.” This reminds me of all those saying “when the Celtics get healthy, look out.” They arent getting younger and Sheed isnt scaring anyone anymore. I root for him to hit his first 3 of the game because then he wont even sniff the paint after that.

  • Matt

    I agree that he tends to float if he hits his first three, but he was dominating Andy in the paint last night before he started chucking: I’m just saying, he definitely scares me more than Perk and KG on offense, that’s all.
    I can see NateRob hurting us, but Tony Allen can’t shoot, and Perk hasn’t scored more than 15 all year: why would they hurt us? And why does the fact that the Celts have Sheed “guaransheed” a win?
    @Boogeyman: so you’re saying that the Cavs would lose to one of these teams? I didn’t really predict any sweeps…

  • stin4u

    @boogey I agree but I don’t know how much you can attribute that to MB and how much you can to LBJ. On offense we go into spurts where Lebron is basically the only player on the floor but I can’t image MB planning it out like that. This team plays best when everyone gets involved and I think sometimes Lebron panics when the rest of the cast is struggling. Instead of sticking to the game plan and keeping guys involved thats when we see Lebron go 1v5. It’s a double edged sword though because without that type of play from Lebron we could have been down 30 at half last night.

  • Chris

    I have a hard time believing that a healthy Powe would let Rasheed run all over him in the paint. He looked funny running around last night, but the dude hasn’t played ball in a year. If he holds up and gets stronger, that should be your answer to Rasheed in the paint right there.

  • Mark

    @Matt – your point about who scares more – Sheed vs KG & Perkins is a good one. I agree.

  • Matt

    Powe would certainly outwork Sheed, but I guess my point about him (and what makes him so scary) is that if he is focused on scoring in the paint, no one can really guard him. Again, that’s a huge IF, but compared to Perk or The Artist Formerly Known As KG, a focused Sheed seems to be the bigger threat. I think the best way to ensure this doesn’t happen is to attack him on the defensive end: Andy was basically waltzing to the basket with Sheed on him, and JJ got at least 3 alley oops in transition simply by hustling. If we attack Sheed when he’s on defense, he’s more likely to be one-dimensional on offense.

  • DocZeus

    The team I don’t want anything to do with is the Charlotee Bobcats. They terrify me for reasons I can’t fathom. I understood why we couldn’t beat Magic last year but the Bobcats perplex me.

  • Matt

    @Doc Zeus: yeah, i talked about them in my other preview…their shot blocking and rebounding is excellent, and their ability to matchup with LBJ and Shaq one-on-one defensively with Wallace and Mohammed/Chandler allows them to closeout on our shooters. I’m hoping we don’t see them at all….

  • stin4u

    @Doc I thought that too till I saw the lineup we rolled out last night play well. Charlotte plays fast and I think that line up last night would have played well vs. their style of ball.

  • Chris

    @ 8 – I’ll certainly agree with that at this point.

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  • boogeyman

    @5 stinfu Possibly but I challenge anyone to tell me any kind of offensive system run by the Cavaliers. Even when they are at their best moving the ball as well as players they can’t sustain it for more then a quarter maybe two and they hardly ever fast break anymore at all. I don’t know I just can’t stand all the jump shots and the fact that none of the players except LeBron James attempt to drive and create. Look how much easier offense comes when someone like a Collison for the Hornets or a Rondo for the Celtics breaks down his man and penetrates. The Cavaliers make offense look so much more difficult and it shouldn’t be given the players they have on the roster. I think this is all at the feet of Mike Brown because like I said before as good as he might be at coaching defense he’s equally bad at coaching offense. This is probably why he leaves it to his assistants.

  • Matt

    Yes, our offense does look bad at times, but in reality we are ranked 4th in the NBA in points per 100 possession: this is a direct product of Mike Brown choosing to focus on defense and letting his assistants handle the offense…our offense is actually pretty good, but I agree it could be more consistent…our defense is actually lower rated than our offense at this point and should be the prime concern.

  • ragarcia

    If we matchup with the Bobcats in the first round, this could be a repeat of the Golden State vs Dallas upset of a few years back.

    What is really annoying about the losses to the Bobcats is that LBJ have admitted in the post-game pressers that they give them problems and that they don’t match up
    well against them.

    It’s one thing to lose the physical battle but to also let the other team that they are also winning the psych battle is just dumb.

  • deebo

    I agree, I think the Cavaliers win any one/all of those series. Like everyone else I think Charlotte having the Cavs number is a bit worrisome, but I don’t think they lose that series either. Might be closer than we would all want, but despite the Cavs struggles, stumbles, injuries, etc. this team is d-e-e-p and is built to win in May and June. Regardless it is going to be a heck of a run and I for one am very excited. Perhaps even more so because for the first time in 15 years I live in NEO and I am excited to physically be a part of the playoff and hopeful championship fun rather than cheering from afar.

  • vsm