The Celtics and Cavs meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second time in three years with Game 1 tipping-off Saturday night in Cleveland. NBA fans should be excited for a long, physical series featuring plenty of intriguing subplots, most notably the health of one LeBron James.
LeBron practiced Friday, participating in non-contact drills and shooting mid-range jumpers and free throws–with his right hand. He is expected to continue wearing a padded shooter-sleeve on his right elbow after being diagnosed with a sprained elbow and bone bruise.
LeBron’s decision to shoot his final free throw in Game 5 against the Bulls left-handed brought needless attention to the injury. Don’t think the Celtics aren’t taking note.
Here’s a closer look at what to watch for in the series:
The King vs. The Truth: LeBron has been very successful against the Celtics in his career, but there is no question the C’s have made him work in the past. In previous years, Boston has used James Posey and Kevin Garnett, along with Pierce, to slow down LeBron. That won’t be the case this time around, with Posey gone and K.G. barely able to get up and down the court. It will be on Pierce and Tony Allen–a huge liability on the offensive end–to check LeBron. The Celtics defend pick and rolls better than most teams in the NBA, but LeBron should be able to dominant on the offensive end. It will be interesting to monitor how much Pierce plays LeBron–and if his offensive production suffers as a result.
The defenseless point guards: An interesting matchup between two players who don’t like to play defense. Rondo led the NBA in steals and can play d when he wants to, but tends to gamble and allow players to go around him. Williams is horrible defensively no matter how hard he tries. Both players could put up huge numbers in this series. Rondo has the ability to exploit Cleveland’s pick and roll defense, which was a huge problem against the Bulls in Game 1 and throughout the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals against the Magic. Rondo can’t shoot it like Derrick Rose, but the Celtics have good floor spacing and players able to hit perimeter shots. The Cavs will most likely play Anthony Parker on Rondo for much of the series. Williams and Parker will get open looks, and they need to connect early to keep their confidence up. Williams choked repeatedly during the playoffs last year and wasn’t great in the First Round this year either.
The men in the middle: Shaq is the headliner, but his true value (if there is any left) won’t be felt unless the Cavs advance to face Orlando. Kendrick Perkins won’t be intimidated by Shaq or Big Z and could have a big series–or he could get frustrated a be a non-factor. Kevin Garnett has very little left in the tank and needs all the help he can get. Rasheed Wallace hasn’t done anything all year, so don’t expect him to be much of a factor. Glen Davis showed signs late in the year and has been productive in the postseason before. He needs to play big against the Cavs, who need consistent production–and minutes–from Shaq, Big Z, Anderson Varejao and J.J. Hickson. If he gets minutes, Hickson could be key to Cleveland’s success. His athleticism and activity gave the Celtics problems during the regular season.
The second-tier stars: Ray Allen and Antawn Jamison are prone to inconsistency and don’t always get enough touches to make an impact. Jamison poses an interesting matchup for the Celtics, who will be forced to chase him on the perimeter with K.G., Big Baby, and ‘Sheed. Jamison would figure to have a big series, but it depends on how much Cleveland looks for him. The same goes for Ray-Ray, who sometimes becomes an afterthought for Boston, especially if Pierce is scoring. The player who has the bigger impact will most likely be on the winning team in this series.
Coaching: Doc Rivers and Mike Brown are extremely overrated as coaches, prone to questionable strategy, substitution patterns, and a puzzling failure to make adjustments. There is no advantage here on either side, although Brown has been woefully inept at times, most notably last year against Orlando.
The X-Factor: Most of the sexy candidates are on the Cavs roster, with J.J. Hickson, Big Z, and Delonte West poised to contribute if called on. But don’t count out Tony Allen or Nate Robinson either. Allen is a high-energy player who could bother LeBron at times, and Robinson is capable of exploding.
If this year’s NCAA Tournament was any indication of my ability to pick winners correctly, I will probably end up picking the wrong team. With that disclaimer out of the way, I’m going to go ahead and pick the Cavs in six games. The Cavs are too deep and too good. Even with the tendency to blow leads and wilt under pressure, becoming stagnant late in games and relying on LeBron to go 1-on-5, the Cavs should be able to survive. Boston doesn’t have a clear advantage in any area in the series and no longer plays smothering defense on a consistent basis. Cleveland simply has too many weapons.