It's the matchup we all wanted, only a year too late. Last season, the Cavaliers and Celtics established themselves as the regular-season kingpins in the East, and a playoff showdown between the two titans promised to be a dramatic prelude to a Finals matchup between the Lakers and the survivor of the Boston-Cleveland tilt. Then Kevin Garnett went down, the Orlando Magic went up and the promised Cleveland-Boston battle royale for the Eastern Conference championship went from inevitable to invisible. This year, the scenario has changed. Instead of an emergent power in Cleveland taking aim at the champion Celtics, it's Boston that is seemingly a hurdle in the Cavaliers' sprint to their first championship.
Based on regular-season metrics, this promises to be the most lopsided second-round matchup in the playoffs, unless the feisty Bucks knock off the Hawks in game seven of that series tomorrow in Atlanta. However, based on the first round of the playoffs, Cleveland and Boston are probably closer in quality than it appears. The Cavs beat overmatched Chicago in five games, but Cleveland's defense often had problems slowing down the inconsistent Bulls offense and Mike Brown's deployment of his ubiquitous big men raised more questions than it answered. Meanwhile, the Celtics' defense looked like it was in top form, the best it's been since before Garnett's star began to wane. Boston also needed five games to get past Miami, but it took a super-human performance from Dwyane Wade to keep that series from being a sweep. Of course, Cleveland features a super human of its own, and LeBron James is expected to win his second straight MVP award and be thus recognized before game two of this series.
Once we get past the first round, it's fun to go back and re-examine the history of playoff matchups. While it has no tangible bearing on what happens this year, a little historical context only adds flavor to the postseason. In this case, we're talking about just four previous playoff matchups, each marking a different era for each franchise. In 1976, the upstart Cavs, coached by Bill Fitch, made a surprise run to the East finals, where they lost in six to the eventual champion Celtics, led by an aging John Havlicek, JoJo White and Dave Cowens. In 1985, Cleveland ended a stint as the NBA's laughingstock by squeezing into the playoffs with a 36-46 record. That got them a first-round matchup with the 63-win Celtics. However, led by World B. Free, the Cavaliers stole a game in the best-of-five series and lost the other three by a combined seven points. Cleveland was coached by George Karl, a 33-year-old former ABA player in his first season leading an NBA team. In 1992, the Cavs beat Boston in seven games in the East semis. That was towards the end of the Brad Daugherty/Mark Price/Larry Nance/Craig Ehlo era that served as Cleveland's salad days until LeBron came along. Ron Harper had already moved on. Those Celtics were led by the aging big three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. It, in fact, was the last we saw of Bird as an active player; he scored 12 points in the game seven loss on May 17, 1992.
The fourth and final playoff matchup between these franchises in the only one that is particularly relevant to the series starting tonight. Two years ago, Boston beat Cleveland in seven games, its most-daunting task on the way to the Celtics' most recent championship. In the seventh game, Boston edged Cleveland by five points, needing 41 points from Paul Pierce to overcome James' 45-point outburst. In the 23-1/2 months since that series ended, things have changed. Boston is showing signs of age and the Celtics are fighting to make one more title run before the window closes on the latest incarnation of the big three. James' supporting cast has changed dramatically, while he's continued to ascend as the NBA's marquee player. Now, the Cavs are firmly in the favorite's chair, but those old Celtics may have a trick or two left up their sleeves.
WHEN CLEVELAND HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.1 (25th NBA) Regular Season, 90.8 (8th) Playoffs
Cavaliers Offensive Rating: 114.3 (3rd) Regular Season, 117.9 (4th) Playoffs
Celtics Defensive Rating: 106.0 (5th) Regular Season, 99.2 (1st) Playoffs
The Cavaliers are a good defensive team, but they've been more heavily tilted towards the offensive end this season. Part of that is likely due to the presence of Shaquille O'Neal, who is still a load in the post on offense, but is painfully slow on the defensive end. Perhaps he'll be needed against a possible (probable?) matchup with Orlando, but I fail to see how he's going to be much use against Boston's Kendrick Perkins. When in the game, O'Neal will keep Perkins close to the basket on the defensive end and Boston's underrated center is one of the game's best basket protectors. Against the strong-side overloads that mark Boston's defensive design under assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, spacing is crucial and you have to give James lanes to drive. O'Neal will probably get his 20-23 minutes per game, but expect Cleveland to be better when he's on the bench.
Cleveland put up a 114.8 Offensive Rating in its four games against the Celtics in the regular season, which the teams split. That's a half-point better than the Cavs' overall mark, so they were clearly comfortable going against the Boston defense in the regular season though, to repeat, it seems like Boston's defense is playing at a higher level right now. Cleveland's touches/minute were lower against the Celtics as was its eFG%, but foul-drawing and offensive rebounding were but higher and turnovers were lower. Add it all up and Boston had a tough time getting stops against Cleveland in its four previous meetings.
Cleveland excels on pretty much all types of offensive plays, mostly due to James' ability to make sure the ball gets to the right spots, at the right times, against the right defenders. The Celtics are also good across the board on defense, however, the more a play develops with action going towards the basket, the better Boston is. The Celtics are the league's top team against post-ups and second-best on cuts to the hoop. They also rank high against spot-up shots and isolations. Where they are vulnerable is on plays that have motion--hand-offs (18th in the league) and screens (25th). The Celtics also were middling against the pick-and-roll, which isn't a featured part of the Cleveland offense but was effective in spurts against Chicago, especially when it involved James and Antawn Jamison. Cleveland was the league's third-best team in the pick-and-roll when the handler gets the shot. You'd expect this, because that player is usually James. However, Cleveland ranked 27th in the pick-and-roll when the screener ends up with the shot. The moral seems clear: Boston has to blitz James against the pick-and-roll and force him to give up the ball.
The Celtics' defense, when its working, is tough for any offense, but the Cavaliers have had the last three seasons to figure out ways to get James going against this version of the Celtics. Pierce does a solid job on LeBron, but that's been mainly because of the support he has behind him. In this series, things could develop outside-in for Cleveland. The Celtics will clog things up for James and try to get the ball out of his hands. He's usually willing to do that early in games, so it'll be imperative for Mo Williams, Jamison and Cleveland's other role players to knock down shots. They've done so all season, so there doesn't seem to be any reason for things to change now.
WHEN BOSTON HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.4 (22nd NBA) Regular Season, 88.2 (7th) Playoffs
Celtics Offensive Rating: 110.8 (12th) Regular Season, 109.2 (8th) Playoffs
Cavaliers Defensive Rating: 106.5 (7th) Regular Season, 106.5 (4th) Playoffs
The Celtics' 108.9 Offensive Rating in the regular season against Cleveland was nearly two points off their overall mark. Just looking at the numbers, it looks like the Cavaliers were able to get Boston to break down into its component parts. Boston's touches/minute were lower against Cleveland, but its turnovers were down. Believer or not, that might not be a good thing. Boston's offense produces a lot of turnovers. They drive coach Doc Rivers crazy, but in this case, touches and, yes, a reasonable percentage of turnovers may indicate that Boston is working as a unit and moving the ball side-to-side. In the regular season, Boston drew more fouls against Cleveland than other opponents, but that could be a by-product of too much one-on-one play, with Pierce and company bailing out possessions by flinging themselves into traffic. Boston didn't shoot the ball well against Cleveland and got even fewer offensive boards against the Cavs than they did against the rest of the league. The rebounding part of the equation won't change, you'd think, because Boston needs to keep players back to prevent the Cavaliers from getting their lethal transition game going. However, the shooting is going to have to be better for Boston to win.
Pierce is always a key against LeBron because he makes him work on defense when the two go head-to-head. Pierce is so crafty that even LeBron's huge edge in athleticism doesn't seem to deter him. That said, the output of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett is going to determine the outcome of the series. Garnett should be able to exploit his matchup against Jamison, provided he doesn't become overly reliant on the fadeaway jumpers he loves so much. Allen, meanwhile, has a tough matchup against Anthony Parker, a rangy-but-athletic wing player that causes problems for spot-up shooters. With Parker and LeBron on the wing, the Cavs are the league's second-best team against spot-up shots. When Allen gets it going, the Celtics are awfully tough to beat, so Parker will be key.
One way to get Allen going is to set screens for him. Boston was league's best team in shots off of screen action, while the Cavaliers ranked 25th in defending those plays. Cleveland is very good against all pick-and-roll sets, so Boston will need to rely on motion in its base offense to get Allen coming off of screens. Then he, of course, has to knock down shots. Rivers will also mix in isolation sets involving Pierce and Garnett. Cleveland isn't great against either post-ups or isolations, so Boston can spend a few possessions per quarter simply giving the ball to Pierce or Garnett on or close to the blocks and clearing out. This will not only allow Boston to attack Cleveland's soft spots, but it will allow the Celtics to control the tempo and have guys fall back to defend against the fastbreak. Even though the Celtics were good off the offensive glass in its opening-round win over Miami, don't look for second-chance point to be a big part of its offense against Cleveland.
The series will be won or lost on this end of the floor. One way or another, you get the feeling that James is going to ensure that Cleveland keeps the scoreboard turning despite the Celtics' sterling defense. However, if Boston can control the tempo of the game on its own end, knock down open shots and keep the ball moving, the Celtics have a chance.
As you can see from the log5 table that follows this text, Cleveland's regular-season power rating gives it a 77 percent chance of knocking off the Celtics. Log5 was eight-for-eight in the first round (assuming the Hawks don't implode against Milwaukee on Sunday), so that seems like pretty long odds for the Celtics. As mentioned, the Celtics are playing on a higher plain right now, but have they closed a 9.5-win gap in power rating between themselves and the Cavaliers? If so, have they closed it enough to overcome Cleveland's homecourt advantage?
Doubtful. The series won't be a runaway--Boston is too good and too experienced for that--but the Cavaliers just have too much depth and too much LeBron. Only faulty player usage or scheming can derail the Cavs in this series and, even if that were to happen, it'd still be a tough chore for the Celtics.
Cavaliers in 6.
SECOND-ROUND LOG5 CHART
Team Sd POW R4% R2% R1%
cle 1 59.2 77.1% 47.3% 31.2%
bos 4 49.7 22.9% 6.7% 2.8%
orl 2 59.4 66.7% 33.3% 19.7%
atl 3 53.2 33.3% 12.7% 6.8%
lal 1 56.5 59.3% 35.9% 16.4%
uta 5 55.1 40.7% 21.1% 8.0%
phx 3 53.7 47.6% 21.2% 8.1%
sas 7 53.8 52.4% 21.8% 7.0%
Note: The percentages denote each
team's chances advance to each round.
Follow Bradford on Twitter at @bbdoolittle.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.