While we’re chewing on another episode of "As LeBron’s World Turns," it really wouldn’t hurt for us to sit up and recognize a major cause of the turmoil in Cleveland.
Take a bow, Boston Celtics. So, with most of the basketball planet wading through deep analysis of why LeBron James and the Cavaliers failed to escape the semifinals of the NBA’s Eastern Conference playoffs, we’re here to salute the Cs. In rolling back their collective odometer, the 2008 champions are well on their way to re-establishing the swagger needed to continue playing into June. That would require another seeming upset, with the second-seeded and playoff-perfect Orlando Magic next in line.
But before assessing their chances against Dwight Howard and his playmates, let’s take a look at why the Celtics were able to dispatch LeBron and the team with the league’s best regular-season record.
Sure, it begins with defense, but instead of underlining Boston’s commitment to playing harder when Cleveland had the ball, let’s applaud the tactical chutzpah that turned effort into performance.
With head coach Doc Rivers providing vigorous reminders in sideline huddles and assistant coach Tom Thibodeau making the strategic moves, the Cs were able to exploit experience and emotion against the Cavaliers. The focus, of course, was James, who — after his puzzling display in Game 5 — was expected to arrive for Game 6 in full attack mode.
But when Game 6 was over and the Cavs were deep in post-mortem review, LeBron’s busy stat line included 13 misses on 21 field-goal attempts and nine turnovers.
Making Boston’s ability to control James even more difficult than it needed to be was Paul Pierce’s inability to resist committing silly fouls that put him on the bench and forced the Allens (Ray and Tony) to spend most of the game guarding LeBron. Even with that variable, Thibodeau’s blueprint was the same as it was for Game 5 — invite James to be a jump shooter and refuse to hug passing lanes in order to give early and decisive help when LeBron drives. This certainly prevented James from annihilating their defense with trips to the rim, but the early cheating toward the middle invited back cuts by other Cavaliers that led to easy baskets. The Cleveland player with the greatest awareness of this opportunity was point guard Mo Williams, whose reading of the defense provided a dose of much-needed self-confidence that led to a 20-point first half.
Boston’s defensive effort also was assisted by Cleveland’s inability to acknowledge that LeBron is too freakishly athletic to handle if he works from the low post. This deployment never really occurred, so River and Thibodeau were free from making that adjustment. Even using LeBron to set ball screens for Williams and either exploit a switch and subsequent mismatch or get to the rim on a slip screen maneuver might have worked, but we’ll never know.
Anyway, while Williams flourished with Boston daring James to shoot and choking his driving lanes, the Cs’ brain trust decided to limit Mo’s freedom in the second half. In addition to having a stronger defensive effort from Rajon Rondo, the Celtics’ perimeter help defenders helped less against James and left that responsibility to big guys Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins. LeBron eventually nailed back-to-back threes in the fourth, but even that didn’t provoke a jump-shooting binge. And the greater attention to Williams cut Mo’s second-half contribution to a measly two points.
The Celtics’ sloppy first half on offense didn’t create a halftime dilemma, because when they weren’t throwing the ball away, the Cs were running a clinic on how to read and take advantage of matchups. That’s the danger in playing an allegedly over-the-hill team that has achieved good health for the first time all season and has the playoff TV schedule providing sufficient between-game recovery time.
In Game 6, the glaring first-quarter matchup edge was Garnett working against the defensive deficiencies of NBA monolith Shaquille O’Neal. Cavaliers coach Mike Brown put Shaq on KG because the Big Ticket had spent most of the previous five games abusing the much-shorter Antawn Jamison on the block. Unfortunately, Garnett also thrives by moving on the perimeter and stepping into his mid-range jumper. In addition to O’Neal’s challenge in chasing KG outside the lane, the Cs further exploited Shaq’s lack of mobility by using Garnett as a screener. With Shaq lurking five feet behind this screen-roll activity, the Boston ballhandler either had an easy turn-the-corner jump shot or KG on the pick and pop.
Boston should have this type of experience-based edge on Orlando in the conference finals, even though most of the Magic’s rotation players participated in last year’s NBA Finals loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. But Orlando does present a set of issues the Cs didn’t see in Cleveland. For example, in Howard the Magic have a center with bounce, mobility, stamina and the ability to alter drives by Rondo or challenge KG post-ups from the weakside. And working against Orlando’s Rashard Lewis, Garnett will have a size advantage on the low post.
Lewis, however, is defined as a stretch four, which translates to a power forward who’s deadly from deep range. As KG’s knee demonstrates a march toward above-average recovery, it will be interesting to see if he can summon sufficient mobility to challenge on close-outs and prevent Lewis from attacking the basket.
Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace are no match for Howard by themselves, but they represent 12 fouls and disparate styles in dealing with the league’s top center. Perkins has the strength to battle Howard down low, while Wallace — whose shooting range came in handy during the elimination of Cleveland — might be able to pull Dwight away from the rim.
Another major issue for any team dealing with Orlando is how to contain Magic point guard Jameer Nelson. Well, Rondo has been anointed as the league’s best defensive point guard, and Boston will not have to cheat toward the middle during help defense like it did against LeBron. So Rondo, in theory, should be defender enough to at least make Nelson less efficient than he was in the opening two rounds.
In Pierce and Ray Allen, the Celtics certainly match up well against Orlando’s Vince Carter and Matt Barnes. And, as you might expect, bench contributions will go a long way in deciding which team reaches the Finals. If Tony Allen, Glen Davis and Wallace continue to provide solid support in reserve, Boston will be in good shape.
Despite Orlando’s perfect run through the first two rounds of the postseason, it would seem crazy to diminish any expectation of winning basketball from the Boston Celtics. They’re battle tested.
And thus far, the Magic have been asked to do a little more than scrimmage.
With a counter-puncher’s chance to take out Orlando, are these Celtics rejuvenated to the point of winning if they actually reach the Finals?
Certainly any team capable of knocking off the Cavaliers twice in Cleveland and then eliminating Orlando would (conceptually) have enough of what it takes to knock off the Lakers or Phoenix Suns. They defend, the previously awful rebounding has improved, they possess capable shooters and Rondo is a point guard who can control a game.
Although they’re two years older, the Celtics (with a similar roster) have whipped the Lakers (minus Ron Artest) in the Finals before … and Rondo is much better now than he was then. The Suns would provide a completely different set of problems for Boston, not the least of which is picking between the poisons of helping against Steve Nash in screen-roll or hugging Phoenix’s legion of knock-down shooters Nash might pass to.
But instead of coming up with reasons why they might struggle, the Celtics — currently riding high after two impressive playoff triumphs — are creating reasons why other teams might struggle against them.