Celtics-Cavaliers scouting report
Limiting LeBron important, but more critical will be stopping his supporting cast
The key for the Celtics against the Cavaliers won't be stopping LeBron, but rather holding his supporting cast in check and winning the battle of the benches.
Earlier this week we examined three potential key story lines when the Celtics and Cavaliers joust in an Eastern Conference semifinal series starting Saturday in Cleveland.
Today, we dig beneath the surface on those topics, with a focus on how Boston is preparing for the key elements of this series.
ESPN.com's panel of 10 experts all picked the Cavaliers to win this series and with good reason. Top-seeded Cleveland appears to be overflowing with talent that didn't exist in 2008 when these two teams last met in the postseason.
Will it be enough to push the Cavaliers over the top, particularly after an exit in last year's conference finals? Read the breakdown below and check out our prediction at the end.
Boston's success in a five-game triumph over Miami in the opening round of the postseason was due in large part to the way it defended Dwyane Wade and his supporting cast.
The strategy was rather simple: Let Wade have his -- within reason -- and challenge his teammates to beat the Celtics. Wade's mates did not deliver and the only game Miami won was when Wade erupted for 46 points on 66.7 percent shooting, and even then Boston had a chance to win despite shooting itself in the foot with turnovers and missed free throws.
Wade might finish as the playoffs' top scorer, having averaged 33.2 points per game in the first round, but can the Celtics employ a similar strategy with LeBron James?
Early indications suggest that James and his supporting cast might simply be too good to get away with it.
"LeBron is a different beast," said Kevin Garnett. "Obviously he has a better cast than D-Wade, who is one of the best one-on-one players, as is LeBron too, but he probably defers to his teammates a little bit ... in that he can turn around 35 [points] with eight boards and nine assists. That means he's all-around. And that doesn't even mention the steals or blocks."
Doc Rivers was asked if he'd prefer James go off with a manageable triple-double (say, 20 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists) or a 30-40-point night. He chose hypothetical option "C" -- neither of the above.
"The 10-10 [rebounds, assists] we can't have and the 30-40 [points] we don't want," said Rivers. "And if he has [a high-scoring game], we want him to have it our way, not his way. That's what I said a little bit with Wade. He got 46 his way. The [31 points in Game 5], he got our way, and we kept everybody else out of it, so that was good."
James heated up in the fourth quarter on Easter Sunday and finished with a game-high 42 points (he did need 31 field goal attempts to get there and missed all nine 3-pointers he attempted), but the Celtics eventually triumphed 117-113. The Celtics don't want to engage in that type of shootout and simply cannot allow James to score 40-plus while five others go into double digits, as they did in that final meeting.
"[James is] going to put so much pressure on you defensively," said Garnett. "Great players, man, you can't do much about them. You try to slow them down; make them look for their 'B' or 'C' move. The key is controlling everybody else."
Battle of the benches
With all the chatter about supporting casts, it's no surprise that bench play will be pivotal in this series.
But just how important are the reserves? Consider this: When Boston won on opening night in Cleveland, its bench helped rescue the team from a sluggish start, rallying the Green from an early double-digit deficit. In the next two meetings, Rivers dubbed the Cavaliers' Anderson Varejao the MVP for his high-energy performance.
So when Rivers examines this series, he knows it's imperative for Boston's bench to generate consistent production in order for the team to be successful.
"Our bench has to play well," said Rivers. "It doesn't have to be all of them, but the combination of [Glen Davis] and Rasheed [Wallace], we need one of them -- we prefer two -- but they have to play well. That's really important for us.
"We need somebody to match Varejao's energy. The two games they won, he was the best player in those two games. He dominated those games with his energy and effort. We need somebody to shut him down."
After a March loss in Cleveland, Davis lamented his inability to match Varejao's energy. But he's singing a different tune now, particularly after two inspired efforts in the opening-round series against Miami.
"[Varejao is] everywhere," said Davis. "But me and him, we have to cancel each other out this series. Energy versus energy."
With the depth the Cavaliers have off their bench, particularly in the frontcourt with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, J.J. Hickson, and even Leon Powe, the Celtics desperately need Wallace -- now more than ever -- to provide something (anything) in this series.
Meanwhile, Tony Allen and even forgotten man Marquis Daniels could play key roles in defending James. Yes, in a series where both rosters are loaded with talent, the winner might be the team with the best eighth, ninth, or 10th man.
Case in point: In the first meeting of the regular season, Paul Pierce finished with 23 points and a mere plus-1 in the plus/minus category. James scored 38 and finished at 0 in plus/minus. Boston's bench was a combined plus-34, Cleveland was a minus-19. The Celtics prevailed.
In the second meeting, Hickson and Delonte West were plus-27s off the bench for Cleveland. Wallace and Davis were minus-12s. Cleveland won by 20.
Keep an eye on the score when bench players are in the game. It might tell the story of the series.
The Celtics are set to open their first playoff series on the road since the Big Three united. Due mainly to their regular-season success the past two seasons, the Celtics enjoyed the higher seeding in each of their previous seven series, but now must travel to start a series for the first time since eighth-seeded Boston got swept by top seed Indiana in the opening round in 2004.
By virtue of the seedings, as Pierce observed, the fourth-seeded Celtics are naturally underdogs to the top-seeded Cavaliers. Even the folks in Vegas set Cleveland as a hefty Game 1 favorite.
But Rivers suggested that's not exactly a new role for Boston.
"I don't know if we feel like underdogs, I feel like everyone feels like we are [underdogs]," said Rivers. "I think that's the better way to word it. We've been there before. Going into the [NBA Finals versus the Lakers in 2008], no one picked us, except maybe people in Boston. I don't care one way or another. We have to go out and earn it."
If Boston wore a target last year as defending NBA champions, it seems OK with handing that paper crown to the Cavs.
"Cleveland is the beast of the East," said Garnett. "They're the No. 1 team. We respect that.
"Both teams have different weapons. It's going to come down to execution and making shots, obviously. All the components that make a basketball game what it is are going to come into play in this series."
Despite the underdog role, Rivers doesn't want anyone crowning King James and the Cavaliers before they've earned it.
"Orlando is the defending champions of the East," Rivers said. "I don't know how Cleveland has been anointed [as East kingpin] already; they have to earn it. And we want to earn it. Orlando wants to earn it. And whoever comes out of that [Hawks-Bucks] series wants to earn it."
My not-so-expert pick in this series? Cavaliers in six.
The first game will tell the story. Boston must carry the momentum from its first-round triumph over Miami into this series and pounce on the Cavaliers from the opening tip, particularly if James' elbow is ailing more than he's letting on.
But there are tough matchups here for Boston, and Cleveland's ability to shoot the 3-pointer might ultimately be the difference. Boston struggled mightily defending the perimeter this season and rotations always seemed to be late getting out to the shooter. Cleveland finished second in the NBA this season in 3-point percentage (38.1 percent) and making Boston respect the outside game frees up the middle of the floor for James.
"They've done a nice job of adding talent and adding shooting," said Rivers. "It's amazing, when you talk about 3-point shooters on a team, you usually stop pretty quickly. It feels like you keep going and going [with the Cavaliers]. They have a ton of them. I think that number may be the key to the series.
"Rebounding is obviously one, but then defending the 3. I think that's going to be huge in this series. If they're making a lot of 3s, then they're awful tough to beat."
About the only thing that can sidetrack Cleveland is James' health, which would really force the supporting cast to step up. But even if he's average LeBron -- the one who averaged 36.5 points, 8.3 assists, and 6.5 rebounds against Boston in the regular season -- and not hellbent-on-winning-an-NBA-title LeBron, the Celtics will still have problems. But say he's limited and the Celtics steal a game in Cleveland. Suddenly Boston in six doesn't seem impossible.
But something tell us that, unless James' elbow crumbles to pieces, he'll be ready for this series and eager to earn a measure of revenge from 2008.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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