Boston Celtics (1-0) vs
Cleveland Cavaliers (0-0)
Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
7:00 PM EST
The Cleveland Cavaliers begin a new journey tonight. Although the result of their path is as unclear as I can ever recall it being, just having the ability to begin down the path brings excitement. And with that excitement comes the nerves. I’m not sure I can remember the last time I was nervous about a season opener. Nervous in a good way, I mean. Nervous because I don’t know what to expect. Nervous because my security blanket is gone. Nervous because I had forgotten what it’s like to watch the Cavaliers and not have LeBron James being a part of it. But it’s a nervous excitement because tonight we begin this journey together. This is about as united as the fans, players, and team as a whole have been in a very long time. We don’t know how this is going to turn out, but we’re in this together.
The good news? The Cavaliers got to scout the Celtics in real game action last night. The bad news? The Celtics looked pretty good. I mean, real good. As in, as long as this team stays healthy (don’t laugh….we laughed last year and the Celtics were healthy when they knocked the Cavs out of the playoffs), they might be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. I don’t want to overreact to one game. I’m sure the Heat will play better than they did last night. The Celtics’ depth, size, and ability to hit clutch shots in the 4th quarter are all issues that I’m not sure the Heat have an answer for.
You know who else I’m not sure has an answer for the Celtics? The Cleveland Cavaliers. I’m sure the Cavs are hoping that playing such an emotional, high profile game against the Heat and then flying to Cleveland late last night takes some of the pep out of their aging legs, but no matter what, the Cavaliers are going to have their hands full tonight.
We know the problems the Cavaliers have had in the past in slowing down Rajon Rondo. The Cavs are hardly alone in the aspect. The Heat got torn apart by Rondo as he sliced them up for 17 assists. The Cavaliers must do a better job on him. This is where Byron Scott must play around with his defensive matchups.
We know that Mo Williams simply can’t hang with Rondo. In the past, Mike Brown used to occasionally have LeBron defend Rondo to cover up this issue. Byron Scott doesn’t have that option. He can try putting the bigger Parker on Rondo to see if his size can disrupt him. He can try letting Jamario Moon attempt to use his athleticism on defense to keep up with Rondo, which would then cause Mo to have to defend Ray Allen and Anthony Parker would have his hands full with Paul Pierce. Perhaps the best option is to play Mo and Ramon Sessions heavy minutes together so you can use Sessions, a much better defender, on Rondo or even see what Daniel Gibson can do on him. No matter what, this is a problem.
Then you consider the frontcourt. Shaq isn’t a huge concern, but if he succeeds in getting Andy in early foul trouble, he can then use his size and strength to bully Ryan Hollins around and get some easy looks on the low post. The question, though, of course, is whether Shaq can then convert the low post layup. JJ Hickson and Antawn Jamison are both going to struggle defending Kevin Garnett. Particularly we saw how much Jamison struggled with KG in the playoffs last year. Hickson and Jamison were able to hold KG to just 10 points on 4-10 shooting last February, but other than that matchup, Garnett has had his way with the Cavaliers the last couple years.
The Celtics don’t do anything too tricky or complex on offense from a schematic point of view. Supposedly Doc Rivers would like Rondo to push the pace a bit this year (although I saw no signs of it against Miami), but in general Boston operates as a half court offensive team. They can be both incredibly efficient when they are working, and they can experience tremendous scoring droughts when they are broken. They tend to be both working and broken at various different times in each and every game. There aren’t many surprises with this team. The key as a defense is to keep them off the offensive glass to limit 2nd chance opportunities, cut off Rondo’s penetration at the point of attack (once he gets past the first level of defense, you’re done), and try not to let Ray Allen and Paul Pierce get even an inch of space to get their shot off.
For the Cavaliers on offense, they are going to face different challenges facing the vaunted Boston defense than what they’ve experienced the past few seasons. Whereas in the past it was all about finding ways to involve secondary players to help ease the burden on LeBron, the Cavaliers must now find ways to implement a true, full-team offense in order to be successful. You can beat the Celtics when one player scores 39% of the team’s total points as the Heat discovered last night. You have to use motion to get the Boston defenders moving from side to side to open up holes that you can exploit. This is why it’s a good thing the Cavaliers have overhauled their offensive approach. Now it’s just a question of how efficiently they can operate it.
The Celtics showed last night a slight vulnerability to the fast break. Although the Heat scored ‘just’ 11 fast break points, they had plenty more opportunities to get points in transition that they simply failed to convert on. This is why when the Celtics go through their trademark scoring droughts, it’s imperative that the Cavaliers box out to secure the rebounds (I’m looking at you, JJ) and then fill the wings breaking out in transition the other way. The Celtics are not a quick or particularly athletic team. Running on them is absolutely the way to beat them. We saw them struggle with some of the Cavs’ smaller lineups in years past and we saw them struggle in the playoffs against quick and athletic teams like the Bulls and Hawks. The Celtics’ strength on defense is in their discipline and awareness on double teams and rotations. Once you get them on their heels a bit, their effectiveness drops significantly. There’s no guarantee the Cavaliers are going to be able to succeed in this already this soon in the season, but this should be their game plan heading into the opener.
Mo Williams is still listed as questionable for this game. I have a hard time believing he’s not going to play, but if he doesn’t, it will not only open the door for Ramon Sessions to start (which I think he should be doing anyway, with Mo starting at the 2), but it could potentially open the door for Manny Harris to get some minutes with Daniel Gibson being the only other true guard on the bench. With Sessions in the lineup, the Cavaliers should be a little more effective defensively, but it will be of utmost importance that Sessions limit his shooting from the perimeter and instead focus on initiating the offense, pushing the tempo, and getting the ball into the lane. The Celtics actually do a better job defending shots from the perimeter than they do from inside the paint, it’s just that they make it so difficult to get into the lane against them. Once you get the ball inside on them, though, they lack true shot blocking despite their size, although this is an area Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal are thought to be able to help. If Sessions can succeed in getting the Cavaliers scoring opportunities in the lane, it will obviously go a long way toward making the Cavs more effective as a unit.
I’ll also be watching to see how effective Anderson Varejao can be going up against Shaq. In the past Andy has had limited success offensively going up against Shaq, but the question will be if Shaq can still keep up with Andy now that Shaq is older and coming off a game the night before.
The Celtics bench was huge for them last night, coming up with 26 points and were a combined +12 on the night. If the Cavaliers are to have any success, their bench production must be every bit as solid tonight. Daniel Gibson has waited a long time to feel like he’s truly a part of this team again, and tonight he’ll have his first chance to prove he deserves his role. Beyond Gibson, the Cavaliers have a plethora of solid, but not great reserves who can play interchanging roles tonight. To beat the Celtics, everyone is going to have to pitch in and do their role and find their own way to make some kind of positive contribution.
Opening night has not been good to the Cavaliers, especially when playing Boston. This will be the 4th time in the last 10 years the Cavs open with the Celtics, and the Cavaliers have lost each of the previous 3. Overall, the Cavaliers are a paltry 3-7 in season openers the last 10 years. Even with LeBron they were just 2-5. So this team is used to slow starts, but the hope has been that the franchise could start removing the word “slow” from their vocabulary. Beating the Celtics would be a great way to jump start that change in people’s perception of this team. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be easy.