The NBA playoffs are here, and the road to the city of Cleveland’s first pro sports title since 1964 starts now. First up, the Boston Celtics, who plan on thwarting the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ title hopes.
To the surprise of some this is actually a match up of the two best teams in the Eastern Conference since February 2nd. That’s right the much forgotten, underdog, untalented, undermanned Celtics have the second best record in the east at 24-12 (per NBA.com). Who knew (except for Bill Simmons)?
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Let’s keep it real here: in the public eye the Celtics don’t have much of a chance to win a game let alone the entire series.
Second-year Celtics Head Coach Brad Stevens has done a miraculous job in what could be considered one of the greatest on-the-fly rebuilding jobs in league history. I mean look at some of the chips he’s had to play with: Evan Turner, an underachieving former number two overall pick who is teetering toward the dreaded bust label; Brandon Bass, although tough, is super undersized at the four position; rookie Marcus Smart, who can’t shoot very well (that’s putting it nicely); and the likes of Jonas Jerebko, Tyler Zeller and Jae Crowder. These are all pieces that were thought to be nothing more than trade assets and expiring contracts.
These teams have met four times this year with the series split at 2-2. For all intents and purposes, these teams have met only once (March 3rd). The other three meetings had circumstances that diluted the result a bit. The first meeting way back in November saw the Cavs make a killer comeback, rallying from 17 down in the fourth quarter to escape Beantown with a 122-121 victory.
The present day models of both teams are far more advanced than they were then. For the Cavs the big trade had not been made yet, Anderson Varejao’s achilles was still in tact and the square peg that was Dion Waiters was still attempting to assimilate into the round hole that was David Blatt’s offense.
Boston too had not made its season-altering trade for Isaiah Thomas. Since that time they, also got rid of former cornerstone point guard Rajon Rondo, who’s now in Dallas. As a matter of fact, in that aforementioned November meeting, Rondo dished out 16 assists.
The Thomas acquisition changed the dynamics for the Celtics. Before, with Rondo, Boston’s bigs like Jared Sullinger, Bass and Kelly Olynyk were able to maneuver in the low post and generate offense. With Thomas, the offense has changed its philosophy to spreading teams out around the perimeter and relying on the penetration from Thomas to suck in help defenders so he can kick the ball out to shooters like Avery Bradley and Crowder.
The April 10th meeting can be scrapped because there was no Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, with the rest of the starters rested in the fourth. Two days later in Boston all starters for the Cavs rested. So now that we know three of the four games don’t matter, let’s look at the the March 3rd game to get a more accurate depiction of what the series will look like. The Cavs won this contest in a 110-79 rout.
All five Cavs starters scored in double figures, paced by LeBron’s 27. The game was pretty much over by halftime. In fact, LeBron only played a grand total of 26 minutes and was pulled from the game for good with 4:41 left in the third.
Cleveland has the advantage size wise at just about every position. LeBron was able to toy with the much smaller Evan Turner. He took Turner off the dribble and was able to score and facilitate down low. Expect to see this match-up exploited early and often in this series. James has made an even more concerted effort to flex his muscle in the post since the Chicago Bulls game a couple of weeks ago.
It’s also bad for the Celtics that they don’t have an imposing rim protector to stop penetration. That’s an open invitation for Kyrie Irving to drive the lane and masterfully finish around the basket like he has much of this year. His counterparts Bradley and Smart are very good on ball defenders, but even they have a hard time staying in front of Irving. They can only hope to slow him down a bit.
Cleveland was also able to get a ton of easy baskets generated by the fast break. If you want to see the fast break run to perfection, just check out how the Cavs ran it that night. The guards leaked out early several times on made baskets and defensive rebounds, taking advantage of the aggressive guards of the Celtics, who like to crash the offensive glass. Kevin Love made some absolutely beautiful (and I do mean beautiful) outlet passes to assist his team to easy baskets. Love and crew generated offense in every single way you could think of and Boston could do nothing about it. Half-court sets utilizing the pick and roll worked wonders and again the fast break was unstoppable. It looked as if Boston was running with cinder blocks for shoes while the Cavs were hyped up on Red Bull and Fun Dip.
If there is any silver lining for the C’s, since that time they have rebounded and shown their growth specifically on the defensive end. After that game, they have ranked fifth in defensive rating at 99.1 (per NBA.com). That ranks with the likes of elite teams such as the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs.
They will need every bit of that defense and then some to pull off an all time shocker. To win the series, the Celtics will have to win at the Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs have won 18 straight games when they are at full strength. I’m smart enough to never say never, but it’s not looking very good for the Celtics. Their days are numbered.
Sorry Bill Simmons.