Roundtable: Celtics-Cavs showdown

Updated: January 9, 2009, 2:26 PM ET
ESPN.com

We asked seven writers to weigh in on tonight's battle between the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers (ESPN, ESPN360.com, 8 ET).

Participants:
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine
Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazine
John Hollinger, ESPN.com
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com
Marc Stein, ESPN.com

1. Fact or Fiction: The Celtics' slump is cause for serious concern.

Abbott: Fiction.
That is, unless it is affecting how the team sees itself.

Are the Celtics the champs, the best team in the league, losing a few games? In that case, fine, join the club. Bill Russell did that, too.

On the other hand, if this seems, to Celtic players, coaches and management, as a sign something is wrong with the structure of the team, then it could get messy.

One element of "messy" would be the desperate move of hiring a circus sideshow of a backup point guard.

Adande: Fiction.
At the risk of sounding too Hollingery, the first 29 games provided a larger sample set than these past eight. The Celtics are closer to the team that went 27-2 than the one that's gone 2-6.

The important thing is they showed they can play at a championship level. No team can sustain that pace throughout the entire season, but as long as they have those memories and examples to come back to, they can always return to that place. Not to mention the added bonus that the Celts have the experience of actually winning a championship. Last June means more than this January.

Broussard: Fiction.
The Celtics will be fine. That doesn't mean they'll definitely win it all, but this slump is just a bump in the road. Remember, they looked bad as late as Game 6 of the first round of the playoffs last season.

Their 27-2 record was a wild aberration, and six Ls in eight games is also an aberration. They'll soon get balanced out and end up with about 60 wins.

Bucher: Fact.
Concern, yes; serious concern ... err, maybe.

If you discount New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, they haven't had two consecutive non-game days since Dec. 11, which means no full-bore practices, and they won't get a crack at one for another week (that's four games). Why does that matter? Because their offensive execution and defensive rotations weren't all that great even before the losses started piling up. Now they've resorted to various players -- KG, Rondo, Pierce -- trying to step up and come to the rescue, and it's not working.

If they're still having problems Feb. 1, after at least three solid practice days, then it'll be time for "serious" concern.

Hollinger: Fiction.
Every team goes through this during the course of a season, and the Celtics aren't getting blown out. They just need to get more offensive production from their bench, and that's one of the easiest things to address by trade.

While they do need to address this problem to run the table against the likes of Orlando, Cleveland and the Lakers, which could be their final three opponents in the playoffs, it's not time for panic.

Sheridan: Fact.
It has to be, their denials notwithstanding. They didn't hit a rough patch like this a year ago until they met the Hawks in the playoffs, so this is really the most sustained subpar play we've seen out of them in a season and a half. When you play on as much adrenaline as they do, any dip in energy -- as we're seeing now -- is doubly cause for concern.

Stein: Fiction.
Mild concern is as far as I'll go.

The landscape hasn't changed too much in my view. Orlando, Atlanta and maybe even Detroit can cause more playoff angst than I would have said in November, but Boston's biggest impediment to getting back to the Finals was and remains Cleveland.

The concern comes from the realization that the Celts would not have home-court advantage if the East finals started today, when that sure seemed like a foregone conclusion while Boston was winning 19 in a row.


2. Fact or Fiction: The Celtics need another piece more than the Cavs do.

Abbott: Fiction.
The Celtics have the team that destroyed everyone last season, plus a vastly improved Rajon Rondo. Yes, they miss James Posey. But every team would love to have their short-term needs.

Adande: Fact.
Put it this way: You haven't seen LeBron James chastising the Cavs' bench players to the point of tears for their lack of production.

Assuming Zydrunas Ilgauskas returns to his old form by the playoffs, it's the Celtics who need another piece more urgently. The Cavaliers' top four reserves of Daniel Gibson, Sasha Pavlovic, Wally Szczerbiak and Anderson Varejao have started a combined 573 games in their careers. Only Varejao has started less than 29 percent of his games. Their guys are used to playing against other teams' top lines.

The Celtics' main reserves of Eddie House, Tony Allen, Leon Powe and Glen Davis have only 111 starts between them. It's clear Doc Rivers doesn't trust them too much, because he's been wearing down his starters early in the season.

Their willingness to bring in Stephon Marbury is a sign that they feel their team is lacking, as well as a belief in the strength of their veteran leadership.

[+] EnlargeStephon Marbury
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesThis is how badly the Celtics need help.

Broussard: Fact.
The Cavs are younger, so fatigue is less of a concern for them.

The Celtics could use another big man, and are holding out hope that P.J. Brown will reconsider coming out of retirement.

I have serious reservations about the Celtics' signing Marbury (if he becomes available), but several basketball folks that I respect think he'd be a great addition to Boston. The Celtics struggle sometimes when Rondo can't hit shots, because opponents can basically guard just four guys. Well, you'd clearly have to guard Marbury, which could make them more dangerous.

Bucher: Fiction.
Both teams could use another piece to be effective going small, which seems to be everybody's preferred type of finishing lineup. The Celtics rely on Tony Allen instead of the departed James Posey as their 3 in a small lineup, while the Cavs roll with either Wally Szczerbiak or Sasha Pavlovic, with LeBron sliding to the 4.

That's why Vince Carter makes an awful lot of sense for the Cavs (even though they aren't interested) and Stephon Marbury doesn't for the Celtics. The idea of Steph defending 3s -- or 2s, for that matter -- makes me want to giggle like a little girl.

For what it's worth, every team in the league -- including the Lakers and Spurs, could use another piece.

Hollinger: Fact.
Boston needs to have an overwhelming advantage in depth and quality to overcome the fact that the best player in the league is on Cleveland. Right now the Celtics don't have the advantage they held a year ago in that area, and still they barely defeated the Cavs in last season's playoffs.

This, again, ties in to Boston's issues with its bench. Leon Powe has been their only productive reserve and he plays the same position as Garnett. Boston needs to be active at the trade deadline, and in the post-deadline waiver frenzy, to try to get the additional help it needs, much as it did a year ago in getting Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown.

Sheridan: Fact.
I don't think it needs to be Stephon Marbury, though. I think Joe Smith or another capable low-post scorer and rebounder (this year's P.J. Brown) is of more concern than finding another guy to do Eddie House's job. I'm also not as concerned as some are with Tony Allen providing the defense that James Posey did, because I've been pretty impressed with Allen's improvement this season.

The Cavs could use an inside-outside big man who's better than Wally Szczerbiak, but their chemistry seems too good to mess with unless a no-brainer presents itself.

Stein: Fact.
Not exactly a news flash, either.

Everyone sees it, right? The Celtics knew from the start that they were vulnerable when the ever-clutch Posey and Brown left, but now the guys who stayed behind on that bench are producing less and less.

The Celts simply look like a six-man team on a lot of nights ... and they have nothing close to a trade chip like Cleveland has with Szczerbiak. Even if a gamble on Marbury was a smash-hit success that exceeds all expectations, Boston's size issues (bad pun alert) are only growing.


3. Fact or Fiction: Rondo is a bigger factor than Mo Williams in the East title fight.

Abbott: Fact.
For two reasons: (1) Rondo's reticence to take jumpers is, I think, the linchpin of how teams are succeeding against Boston right now. (2) His energy on defense and his majestic drives, meanwhile, are the team's greatest reasons to believe they could be better than they were last season.

So, he's a key player for what might be the best team in the league. If Rondo gets back to taking, and making, the jumper, then he's a superstar.

[+] EnlargeMo Williams/Rajon Rondo
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesMo Williams and Rajon Rondo will both play big roles in determining who wins the East.

Adande: Fiction.
The "new and improved" Rondo had a big role in Boston's great start, but even the old Rondo was good enough to win a championship.

Williams has turned the Cavaliers into a legitimate contender to knock the Celtics out in the East. And if Williams helps convince LeBron that Cleveland is his best place for a shot at a championship, and he signs an extension with the Cavaliers, wouldn't that merit some MVP consideration for Williams? What could be more valuable than that?

Broussard: Too close to call.
Williams has revitalized Cleveland's offense with his ability to push the ball, create off the dribble, can 3-pointers and hit FTs. He's a major factor for Cleveland's offensive improvement.

But Rondo is very big for Boston, as well. His defense is crucial and when he's hitting shots, it becomes "pick your poison" for Celtics opponents. Without him playing well, the Celtics aren't nearly as good.

Bucher: Fact.
Because Rondo has the best shot of erasing Posey's absence as a combination stopper/scorer in crunch time. The Cavs are capable of winning playoff games without Williams being a factor; after all, they did it last season. The Celtics have no chance of winning a series unless Rondo comes through, which means knocking down jumpers if and when the defense leaves him.

Hollinger: Fact.
Cleveland can survive an off night from Williams by relying on Delonte West or Daniel Gibson, but Boston can't survive an off night from Rondo as easily, simply because the Celtics don't have a player of similar quality to replace him with.

Additionally, he's been a better barometer of success; Boston's losses have largely coincided with Rondo's worst games. Four or the Celtics' eight losses have come in games in which he was brutally awful (five points, no boards versus the Rockets; 1-of-7 and three points versus the Knicks; 1-of-8 and two points versus the Nuggets; 1-of-4 and two points versus the Pacers).

Sheridan: Fact.
Tough call there. The Cavs are going to need Williams' shooting and secondary playmaking as much as the Celtics are going to rely on Rondo's all-around game, especially his uncommonly high rebounding numbers for a point guard. But since Rondo's weaknesses remain more pronounced than Williams' -- and opposing teams try to key on weaknesses -- I believe Rondo's shooting will be the biggest factor regarding either player.

Stein: Fiction.
Can't say that.

I certainly agree that when we see the good Rondo, Boston goes to another level. But you shouldn't underestimate the impact Williams has had on the Cavs.

Williams makes it tougher to double-team James, enables him to spend more time off the ball, and has snapped the Cavs' whole backcourt into alignment by allowing the likes of Delonte West and Daniel Gibson to be shooters instead of worrying about facilitating, too.

Because his stats aren't spectacular, Williams' arrival in Cleveland has made a huge difference that gets underplayed because of the general obsession with everything James and the good adjustments Mike Brown has made to his offensive system.


4. Fact or Fiction: KG's antics are a more legit controversy than LBJ's crab dribble.

Abbott: Fact.
One traveling call, in the scope of a 1,230-game season, means absolutely nada.

The idea that one of the major faces of the league (a player that adults and children alike have been told to revere on and off the court) is apparently at times a cranky eighth-grade style bully ... that's worth noting.

Adande: Fiction.
If the refs aren't going to allow James to do his "crab dribble" -- or to take it a step further, if they make calling it a travel a point of emphasis -- that will take away an edge. It's not like a 6-foot-8, 285-pound guy with explosive leaping ability will be left shortchanged, but maybe defenses will at least stand a chance of stopping his drives to the hoop.

Garnett has always unleashed a stream of expletives on the basketball court. He has always blocked any shot put up after a play is blown dead. The only difference now is that there are more cameras trained on him.

[+] EnlargeKevin Garnett
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty ImagesOpponents are getting fed up with KG's constant yapping.

Broussard: Fact.
The "crab dribble" is a non-issue, a humorous little anecdote. But KG's antics, while not really pressing, are beginning to hurt his rep. It wouldn't be so bad if he got in a tough guy's face every once in a while because then he wouldn't be viewed as a guy who picks on the meek and mild while avoiding real ruff-necks.

Bucher: Fact.
No one's offended by James' ridiculous attempt to defend a staggered jump stop as legal (three years ago it was), but KG's -- and Kendrick Perkins' and Paul Pierce's -- mad-dogging is energizing their opponents more than it is their teammates.

I can't remember a less-respected defending championship team than this one. When a quiet rookie point guard (D.J. Augustin) calls you out as punks, it's time to stop yappin' and start crackin'.

Hollinger: Fact.
Both are contrived discussion points to an extent, as each player has been doing this for years, but KG's is the more legitimate of the two.

The crab-dribble is suddenly all over the airwaves largely because James put a name to it, although I'm not sure everyone gets that he named the hesitation dribble move he did and not the traveling afterward.

Meanwhile, KG's antics are a constant. You can argue about how "new" a topic this is, since Garnett has been doing it for years, but what you can't argue is that lots of teams appear to be fed up with all the Celtics' woofing, and in that sense it has a lot more impact on the game than the crab-dribble "controversy."

Sheridan: Fact.
The crab dribble was much ado about nothing. He took three steps. Three!

KG straddling the line of showing up opponents? That's considered bush league, which is a legitimate controversy.

Stein: Fiction.
KG has been doing the same stuff for almost 15 years. It's just that now his every move is closely scrutinized because he's a Celtic and because they're the champs.

No one called them "antics" when he was clapping in guys' faces and woofing all the time on a slew of mediocre teams in Minnesota. The outcry is so loud these days because the Celtics are so hated again.

My curiosity is piqued more by James' crab-dribble deal, mainly because he continues to defend the move so vigorously. I remember watching the ESPNews highlights package of the Washington game and wondering why no fuss was made over a layup he scored right before the bucket that was waved off. It looked like a travel, too.


5. Fact or Fiction: The Cavs' championship window is smaller than the Celtics'.

Abbott: Fiction.
The Cavaliers are guaranteed at least this season and next. If James returns -- it could happen -- then the window extends the length of his next contract. The Celtics, on the other hand, rely on four stars. Three of them are older than 30, and two of them could be free agents in 2010, just like James.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesNo need to run a pic of LeBron in a Yankees hat here, right?

Adande: Fiction.
Even if James stays in Cleveland only through the 2009-10 season, the Cavs' window is twice as large as Boston's. This is it for the Celtics.

They could win it all this season, giving them back-to-back titles (something Larry Bird's squads never got), and that would amount to a nice little run. But Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen are in their 30s. Garnett has played more than 1,000 games. One of the reasons they meshed so quickly last season was because they realized they didn't have much time to get this done. It was cohesion formed by urgency.

James just turned 24. Imagine how long the Cavaliers could rule the Eastern Conference if he does stay in Cleveland. Everyone's been so caught up in trying to figure out where he'll go next that they haven't considered that possibility.

Broussard: Fiction.
Even if James jets in 2010 (far from a foregone conclusion), the Cavs will probably move ahead of Boston next season as the favorite in the East. The Celtics' age is going to begin to show, so they need to take care of business this season. They'll still be a contender next season, but the Cavs' window will only open more while Boston's will close a little.

Bucher: Fiction.
Even if you buy into the idea James is gone in '10, that gives them two shots at a ring, which is about what the Celtics have. Considering the entire power structure of the league is potentially up for grabs two summers from now, projecting who will be a legit contender beyond that is pointless.

Hollinger: Fiction.
Cleveland's window shuts only if James leaves as a free agent in 2010, which, contrary to the beliefs of many New Yorkers, is far from a given at this point. If he stays, the Cavs will have the best player in the league and he'll only be 26 at the time, which leaves the window wide, wide open for several years into the future.

The Celtics' window, on the other hand, probably slams shut after next season regardless. So maybe the two windows will shut at the same time, but there's little chance Boston's will stay open longer than Cleveland's.

Sheridan: Fiction.
Each team has about two seasons remaining as equal shots to win the title. After that, the Celtics will fade due to age, whereas the Cavs are aiming to stay at the top for another 7-8 years; something they can do if they re-sign LBJ in 2010.

Stein: Fact. Or maybe fiction.
It's a obviously a full-fledged fact if James leaves in the summer of 2010.

It's just as obviously fiction if he stays.

If someone out there secretly knows what's going to happen 18 months from now, please send in your anonymous tips and we'll adjust this answer accordingly.


6. Fact or Fiction: The Celtics will repeat as Eastern Conference champs.

Abbott: Fact.
But I'm not putting money on it.


Adande: Fiction.
Cleveland wins the East this season.

Broussard: Fiction.
It's James' time, baby. LBJ versus Kobe in June.

Bucher: Fiction.
If James attacks the rim and defends the way he has so far, the Celtics have no answer for him.

Hollinger: Fiction.
I already gave this away in my 2009 predictions, but Cleveland has the one trump card nobody can touch: In a postseason game, they can play the best player in the world all 48 minutes. That's why the Cavs-Celts series last season was so close, even after Cleveland had a mediocre regular season. And if the Cavs have home court, forget it.

Sheridan: Fiction.
Depends where Game 7 is played, another thing that makes Friday night's game so huge. Generally, though, I think the Cavs are hungrier. In a lot of ways, that made all the difference for Boston several times last postseason, and not just against Cleveland.


Stein: Fact.
It'll be easier to say so when we know for sure whether the Celtics have home-court advantage all the way through the East playoffs and which team -- Boston or Cleveland -- has to face Orlando in Round 2.

But it's way too early to abandon preseason predictions. Can't do that without a catastrophic injury or landscape-changing trade that mandates a rethink.

I also won't be surprised in the least if the Celts respond to all the negativity by winning Friday night's visit to Cleveland and changing their outlook completely, much like the Lakers did by beating Boston on Christmas Day. The Lakers' December slump wasn't as deep as Boston's current funk, but there are some similarities here.

The Cavs are more than due for a home loss after their 18-0 start at the Q -- just as the Celts were due for an L after showing up in L.A. with a 19-game win streak -- and no one seems to think much of Boston right now. Which is reminiscent of what folks were saying a few weeks back about the Lakers.