The Cleveland Cavaliers not-so-easily dispatched of the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs in 5 games and now are gearing up for a matchup fans have been waiting for. Ever since Paul Pierce dueled with LeBron James in that infamous Game 7 two seasons ago, Cavs fans (and presumably LeBron himself) have wanted a chance at redemption and vindication. The basketball gods have smiled their gracious faces upon us and given us a chance to vicariously achieve our revenge and true justice. Perhaps for some fans this is overstating the importance of a battle against a bunch of aging Hall of Famers, but not for this fan, and I suspect, for many Cavs fans out there like myself. This is a war 2 years in the making.
It’s bizarre how similar these 2 teams really are. They both excel at getting easy baskets in the paint and are excellent at defending against teams in the paint. Both are average in fast break points but do a pretty good job of transition defense. The Cavaliers had a 1.719 Assist/Turnover Ratio this year, the Celtics had a 1.665 ratio. If there’s an edge for the Cavaliers anywhere in this matchup, it’s 1) LeBron James, and 2) the Cavaliers are a better 3 pt shooting team than the Celtics.
It’s a little funny to me how we scoffed all year at the pundits saying if the Celtics can stay healthy they can still do some damage in the playoffs. Well, here we are now, it’s the playoffs, and the Celtics are 100% healthy (relative to postseason health) while the Cavaliers are going through Elbow-gate with LeBron James. It’s the Cavaliers who are trying to work Shaq back into game shape. It’s the Cavaliers who hold their breath every single time Antawn Jamison hits the floor hard.
Of course, none of this is to say the Cavaliers are going to lost this series. It’s just to point out the Celtics are healthy, and they are a damn good basketball team. If we are to buy the old “defense wins Championships” mantra, then the Cavaliers could be in a little bit of trouble. The Celtics are the better defensive team by far, while the Cavaliers are the better offensive team by far.
The Cavaliers are going to win this series in the margins by doing 2 things. First, they must attack the defensive boards with vigor. Unlike the Bulls, who dominated the Cavaliers on the glass, the Celtics are not a good offensive rebounding team whatsoever. To beat them, the Cavaliers cannot allow the Celtics to rack up 2nd chance points like the Bulls can.
The second thing the Cavs must do is protect the basketball. The Cavaliers were a very similar offensive rebounding team to the Miami Heat this season, and the Celtics just killed them on the defensive glass limiting the Heat’s ability to get 2nd chance points all series. This puts extra emphasis on the Cavaliers not turning the ball over and giving the Celtics extra points and possessions because the strain created by the importance of that first shot for Cleveland is too much to make up for.
The Cavaliers were the 3rd best eFG% team and the 3rd best in defensive eFG% this season. So far they are 1st in eFG% in the postseason and 2nd in defensive eFG%. If we accept the basic premise that the single most important element to the game of basketball is the ability to efficiently put the basketball in the hoop, then this bodes well for Cleveland as long as they play to their expected norm.
From a strict Xs and Os standpoint, I think we all know by now how these teams play and match up against each other. Celtics fans will say “Pierce wasn’t playing in the 1 Celtics loss and the Celtics are 2-1 against Cleveland with him”, while Cavs fans will say “Jamison wasn’t on the team yet in the 1 Cavs loss and the Cavs are 2-1 against Boston with him.” And that pretty much just sums up the evenness of this series.
Much like Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo is going to terrorize Mo Williams and break him down off the dribble at will. Whereas Rose had the threat of the mid range pull up jumper, this is still not a great option for Rondo. The Cavaliers can afford to attempt to force him to shoot more from the outside. I don’t think Parker will be as effective on Rondo as he was on Rose because it was Parker’s size that helped neutralize Rose’s shot. Rondo is a different animal, though. In a perfect world, Delonte West would see heavy minutes defending Rondo and allowing Mo and Parker to just stick with Ray Allen and never let him get good looks.
I can see this series going 5 games and I can see it going 7. I don’t think the Cavaliers will win 2 games in Boston, so I don’t think it will go 6. Unless Boston steals one of these first 2 games and wins it in 6. I don’t think Boston will win 2 games in Cleveland, so if the Cavaliers win these first 2 games, I think they’re in excellent shape to win this series. The Celtics are playing great basketball while the Cavaliers have been playing mediocre basketball, so these first 2 games are where this series will be won or lost in my opinion. I’m ready for the Cavaliers to step and start making a statement.
One final thought before we wrap this up. There’s been a lot of talk about Orlando’s cake walk to the ECF this season. They swept Charlotte and will almost certainly overpower Milwaukee or Atlanta in the next round. Probably in another 4 or 5 game series. Meanwhile, Cleveland faced a stiff test in the first round and are now set for a brutal, physically and mentally draining matchup with the Celtics. I can’t help but think about how much the roles are reversed from last year when the Cavaliers flew through the first 2 rounds before facing a buzz saw in the form of a tough battle-tested Magic team. Hopefully that will also reverse the fortunes of last year. I don’t mean to get ahead of myself here, but it helps to put these struggles into context and I only bring it up now as some food for thought as the Cavaliers go through this vicious 2nd round matchup.