By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Apr 28 2010 4:30PM
This is a rematch two years in the making.
When the Boston Celtics won the NBA championship in 2008, no team gave them a tougher challenge than the Cleveland Cavaliers. Their conference semifinals series came down to the final minute of Game 7.
This one could go the distance as well.
Each team took care of their first-round business in five games, and each will be facing much tougher competition starting Saturday. The Cavs were 11 games better than the Celtics in the regular season, but this is the playoffs and the Celtics have seemingly flipped the switch.
Both teams have proven to be nearly unbeatable on their home floor in the playoffs. The Celtics have won 21 of their 25 home postseason games over the last three years, while the Cavs have won 14 of 16. And the home team has won 17 of the 19 total games these two teams have played against each other since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce in Boston.
Nothing will come easy in this series. LeBron James and the Cavs have been on a two-year mission to win their first title, but the Celtics showed us in the first round that they can still turn up the defensive pressure when they need to. Do they have the legs to stand toe-to-toe with the league's best? Tune in and buckle up.
1. How much of a concern is James' injured right elbow? You can look at it two ways. One: It's a huge concern, because he's the best player in the series and his outside shooting is extra important against the Celtics, who will make it tough for him to get to the basket. Two: It was bothering him against the Bulls, and he still shot 57 percent, while averaging 31.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.2 assists. So how bad can it be?
2. This is going to be an ugly series, isn't it? For the most part, but not as ugly as it was two years ago, when the average score was 85-84. Both are strong defensive teams, but the Cavs have been the third best offense in the postseason thus far, and the Celtics can have a very efficient offense if they can limit turnovers. Neither team is quite as good defensively as they were two years ago either.
3. Will we see more extracurricular activity? These teams certainly dislike each other, but Garnett seems to have learned his lesson from the Miami series. There will definitely be some post-whistle pushing and shoving, but both teams are too smart and have too much on the line to risk a suspension.
4. How much of a factor will Shaquille O'Neal be in this series? He's been relatively effective -- 12.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, 58 percent shooting -- against the Celtics over the last three years, but against Boston's screen-and-rolls and ball movement, he may be a defensive liability.
5. What's the stat we should be monitoring closely? Turnovers. Both teams were able to limit their miscues in the four regular season meetings, but turnovers were a real problem for the Celtics at times against Miami. The Cavs aren't a team that forces a lot of turnovers and the Celtics do a good job of getting back on defense off missed shots, but sloppy play will get them in trouble, because no one is more dangerous in the open floor than LeBron James.
Led by the reigning MVP, the Cavs had the fourth most efficient offense in the league this season. It's a lot more balanced in the first half than it is in the second. They will go to Shaq in the post early on and otherwise mix it up before halftime. Antawn Jamison is a huge asset as someone who can make shots from anywhere on the floor.
In the second half, the Cavs' offense usually gets more LeBron-heavy, and that's when they could run into trouble. Against the Celtics' defense, they need to continue to move the ball from side to side and work inside-out. Boston has been the best defensive team in the postseason so far, but Cleveland has a lot more weapons than Miami did.
The Celtics' offense is at its best when it's balanced and the ball is moving, as we saw in Game 5 against the Heat. Rajon Rondo is the quarterback and will try to get to the rim in transition or off a high screen. Allen, Pierce and Garnett are all dangerous from the perimeter, but the other Celtics bigs will hurt you by working for position near the basket on the weak side.
With all the injuries and lineup changes they've had, the Cavs' defense hasn't been very consistent. Even against the offensively deficient Bulls, they struggled to get stops at times. Their best defensive lineup will be when they go small with Anderson Varejao at center. The biggest question will be if Mo Williams can stay in front of Rondo. If not, the Cavs will be a step behind the Celtics' ball movement, just like the Heat were.
James will obviously have the ball in his hands on every possession down the stretch. The Celtics will do everything to keep him out of the paint and make him shoot jumpers. If they force him to give up the ball, it will be up to his supporting cast (Williams, Jamison and Parker) to knock down shots.
No matter the time or situation, the Celtics have a lot of options offensively. Who gets the ball will depend mostly on who's hot. If it's Ray Allen, he'll be coming of a down-screen or two. If it's Paul Pierce, he'll be isolated (like on the final possession of Game 3 in Miami) or run a pick-and-pop with Kevin Garnett. And Rondo is always dangerous off the dribble.
J.J. Hickson played just 24 minutes against the Bulls (most coming in the Game 4 blowout), but the Celtics don't handle athleticism well (see their 0-4 record against the Hawks this season). So Hickson could provide a spark off the bench for the Cavs, especially if Shaquille O'Neal is having trouble with the screen-and-roll.
Glen Davis was huge when he replaced the suspended Kevin Garnett in Game 2 against the Heat, but he wasn't able to make much of an impact coming off the bench in the other four games. Davis has scored 20-plus points only four times in 199 regular season games, but has done it six times in 36 postseason appearances. Marquis Daniels played only in the Game 2 blowout against the Heat, but could be called upon to guard James in this series.
This is looking like a much more interesting series that it would have just two weeks ago. The Celtics can keep it tight by keeping it ugly, but the Cavs simply have too much talent, starting with the best player in the world. Cleveland in 6.
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