Saturday, May 1, 2010
Quicken Loans Arena, 8 p.m.
RADIO: WEEI 850 AM
BOSTON - The old adage is that you have to play the best to be the best. The Celtics will bring that saying to real life when they take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, which tips off at 8 p.m. Saturday night in Quicken Loans Arena.
Cleveland entered the postseason with the best record in the NBA, at 61-21, and eliminated the Chicago Bulls in five games during the First Round, which was the same amount of time it took Boston to oust the red-hot Heat. During their impressive regular season, the Cavs compiled the best home record (35-6) in the league and tied with Boston for the second-best road record (26-15), behind only Dallas.
Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider that Cleveland lost its first two games of the season while integrating new players, and then lost the last four games of its season while resting many of its key players. That means the Cavs, when chopping off those short stints at each end of their schedule, went 61-15 during the meat of the NBA season.
Boston finished the regular season with a 50-32 record but was decimated by injuries after their 23-5 start. The Celtics seem to have found their rhythm lately and didn't look much like a fourth seed against Miami.
But the fact of the matter is that none of those records matter. What matters is that these two teams split their regular season series 2-2, with each team notching one win on the opponent's home court.
Both of these teams are great at both ends of the court, with each finishing the regular season in the top five in field goal percentage (Cleveland was third at 48.5 percent, Boston was fourth at 48.3 percent) and top 10 in opponent field goal percentage (Cleveland was fourth at 44.2 percent, Boston was ninth at 45.1 percent).
Boston's main advantage statistically will be in the turnover department. Both of these teams turn the ball over often, with Cleveland finishing 11th in the league and Boston 21st, but the Celtics are much more adept to forcing turnovers to make up for their own. The C's forced the second-most turnovers per game this season at 15.6 per game, which is a clear indication of their ability to pressure the ball. Cleveland ranked near the bottom of the league in that category in the regular season and then forced the young Bulls into only 10.0 turnovers per game during their First Round series.
Cleveland's advantage will be on the glass, where they led the NBA in total rebounding percentage this season. The Cavs grabbed a league-best 52.4 percent of their possible rebounds, while the C's finished 25th in the league at only 49.1 percent.
This is a classic matchup between two of the league's best coaches. Doc Rivers and Mike Brown have each have won one NBA Coach of the Year award in their career and led their team to numerous first-place finishes in their respective divisions (four times for Rivers, twice for Brown).
The difference, though, is that Rivers has been able to lead his team to a championship, while Brown has failed to do so despite having the best player in the league on his team year-in and year-out.
Both coaches are defensive-minded and would rather have their team win by shutting down an opponent than outscoring an opponent. However, each coach has been able to put together effective plays in big situations to get critical baskets scored on offense. It's a lot easier for Brown (it's usually simply a case of getting the ball to LeBron James), so we'll give a slight edge to Rivers in terms of drawing up creative plays in crunch time.
Each team has a point guard that is very good at what he does, but each player does very different things.
For Boston, Rajon Rondo plays the role of facilitator on offense and ball hawk on defense. When in attack mode, he will continually break down the opposition's defense and find an open teammate at any spot on the floor. Defensively, he is the best in the league at stealing the basketball away from opponents, as he racked up a league-best 189 steals this season.
Mo Williams is Cleveland's spot up shooter and rarely does much else, particularly against the Celtics. With LeBron James handling the ball most of the time, Williams is technically the point guard, but plays more like a shooting guard. More than half of his field goal attempts against Boston this season came from behind the arc, and he will rarely leave that area.
Oddly enough, both point guards have terrible plus/minus ratings in this series. Through four games against each other this season, the Celtics have been outscored by 22 points when Rondo was on the court, and the Cavs have been outscored by 12 when Williams was on the court.
Rondo should dominate this matchup, but Williams has the ability to play a role similar to what Eddie House formerly played for the C's -- make big shots that can change the momentum of a game.
This is easily the most favorable matchup for Boston. Ray Allen is head and shoulders above Anthony Parker and he showed that in the regular season. Allen averaged 22.5 PPG against Cleveland while shooting 57.7 percent from 3-point range. He also chipped in 3.3 RPG and 3.3 APG during those four meetings.
Parker does not have any offensive responsibility for this Cleveland team. Anything he gives each night is simply icing on the cake, and for the most part, anything he provides is usually in the form of 3-pointers. He averaged less than six shots per game this season, and more than half of those shots come from behind the arc, where he shot 41.4 percent.
Boston will need Allen to continue that dominant play if the C's are going to win this series. Parker is Cleveland's defensive stopper, and if he's not doing any stopping, it's going to put a damper on the Cavaliers' psyche.
Paul Pierce vs. LeBron James will always garner national attention, and these two stars deliver nearly every time. They have had epic battles in the past, most notably Boston's Game 7 win in this very same round in 2008 where Pierce scored 41 for the C's and James scored 45 for the Cavs.
There is no arguing which team has the advantage in this matchup -- LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world. But it's not all about the statistics a player accumulates, it's about how many wins they can lead their team to. Pierce proved to have the upper hand in that category in 2008, and he'll look to do the same here in 2010.
James, however, will be gunning to do the same. He will dominate the ball in this series and will be very difficult to stop. Doc Rivers said after Thursday's practice that he can live with James scoring 30 or 40 points, as long as he isn't notching big numbers in rebounds and assists, too.
"The 10 (rebounds) and 10 (assists) we can't have," said Rivers. "The 30 and the 40 (points) we don't want, and if he has it, we want him to have it our way, not his way. That was what I've said a little bit with Wade in a couple of the games: he got the 46 (points) his way. The big game, the last night, he got it our way, and we kept everybody else out of it."
Blockbuster trades for each team have bolstered this position in the past three seasons. Boston acquired Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007 and made an immediate run to the championship that season. The Cavaliers acquired Antawn Jamison at the trade deadline this season, and they're hoping to reap similar benefits.
Jamison is a power forward that is known for his ability to hit the outside shot and stretch defenses. That's exactly what the Cavs need against the Celtics, because it draws Kevin Garnett's interior defense away from the basket.
Garnett and Jamison (the Cleveland version) had nearly identical scoring and rebounding numbers this season. KG, however, outperformed Jamison in the two games where the Celts and Cavs met since the trade deadline. Garnett defended Jamison well and limited him to 3-of-10 shooting from 3-point range in those two contests.
Kendrick Perkins said at Thursday's practice that he noticed some timid play from Bulls who were defending Shaquille O'Neal in the First Round. He essentially promised that no one will see that happen during this series.
O'Neal now has five games under his belt after retuning from a thumb injury he suffered against the Celtics on Feb. 25. He's surely going to have some extra motivation playing against the team that shortened his season, but this Shaq is nowhere near what many NBA onlookers have come to know over the years.
Perkins is actually averaging more rebounds (7.6 RPG to O'Neal's 6.2 RPG) and more blocks (2.2 BPG to O'Neal's 1.4 BPG) thus far in the playoffs. O'Neal is averaging slightly more points, but has also taken nine more shots (37) than Perkins (28).
Rivers believes that bench play will be the most important factor in this series, and looking at the box scores of the four games these teams have played against each other this season supports that notion. In all four meetings, the starters for each team have marginal plus/minus ratings, while in all four games the benches have substantial plus/minus ratings. This means that, for the most part, those four games were decided when reserves were on the floor.
Boston's bench will be critical to this series in regards to production, but their energy will be even more important. Players such as Glen Davis and Rasheed Wallace will need to limit Anderson Varejao's impact on the game; Tony Allen and Michael Finley will need to do their best to outplay Delonte West and Jamario Moon on the perimeter.
The Cavs are extremely deep on the frontline, and their reserves allow Mike Brown to play with an array of lineups. Boston's bench will have its hands full, and they'll certainly need to step up their game in comparison to their performance in the First Round against the Heat.