The 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:
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.
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.
This 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.
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).
The 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.)