Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.
This series is not.
On paper, this should be a nail biter. The teams split the regular season series. Both won their first round series in 5 games. Both teams are as healthy as they will ever be (and yes, I’m assuming that LeBron’s elbow is fine, because he’s a cyborg and cyborgs don’t feel pain). And while the Cavs are deeper, and had the far superior regular season record, they are also employing a line-up that has played less than 10 games together, including in the playoffs, and lack the championship pedigree of their green opponents. All in all, this evens out.
Until you look at the fine print.
How did Boston got those regular season wins? Well, one was on opening night, against a Cleveland squad playing it’s first game with Shaquille O’Neal in uniform after a shaky training camp, without Delonte West who was battling personal issues. Since then, Cleveland acquired Antawn Jamison, got Delonte back, got Shaq in the mix, and gained two rotation players in J.J. Hickson and Jawad Williams (though the latter might be kind of a stretch), while the Celtics regressed to .500 ball from Christmas Day onward.
The second Boston win came 10 days before the end of the season, after the Cavs clinched the league’s best record, without the aforementioned O’Neal. Cleveland basically rolled over for 3 quarters, allowing Boston to go up 22, before LeBron decided he feels like trying and instantaneously made it a close game, only to lose the game on some questionable decisions – and missed some free throws – in crunch time.
How did Cleveland get their wins?
One was a late February game, one week after Jamison joined the team, which was close for three quarters before the Cavs turned it up in the fourth (notice a trend here?) and won by 20. The other was a mid-March, Shaq-less contest, an 11 point win that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated.
“Sure,” you could say, “but how about those first round series? Boston looked much better there!”
Well, the Cavs, playing at first gear, beat a Bulls team despite the Bulls playing two or three of their best games of the season. The Celtics, with extreme motivation, beat a Miami team that consists of Dwyane Wade … and … yeah.
Not to take away from the Boston’s win against Miami – they upped the defensive intensity, and managed to convincingly win a series that many, including yours truly, predicted would be very close. But how does that help them against Cleveland? Letting Wade get his and stopping the likes of Beasley, Chalmers, Haslem and Jermaine O’Neal’s dead body is hardly the same as letting LeBron get his and stopping Jamison, Mo, Shaq and an array of three-point snipers. Besides, just letting LeBron get his could be enough to lose.
Look, I might be selling the Celtics short. I pretty much declared their title chances – for this year – over once Kevin Garnett was ruled out from last season’s playoffs, and my stance didn’t change one bit even when they started the season 23-5. And while I still believe the Celtics as presently constructed to be all but done as far as a title contender, I may be letting that opinion get the better of me.
And yet, the question remains:
When have the Celtics ever given us any indication that they are capable of beating these guys?
Even at full strength, rolling towards a title, a much stronger version of these Celtics needed 7 games and a fourth quarter outburst from P.J. Brown to put Cleveland away. And this was when Cleveland had, maybe, 10% the supporting cast, the Celtics had James Posey (whom they’ve never adequately replaced), and Kevin Garnett was still one of the best players in the league.
So yes, Rajon Rondo will probably have his way with Mo Williams, weaving his way into the paint for numerous floaters and funny looking layups, just like Derrick Rose did before him and Jameer Nelson will do after him. Ray Allen will make some big threes, Paul Pierce will still be Paul Pierce, KG will yell at all sorts of things, be them opposing point guards or stationary objects. Heck, maybe even Rasheed Wallace will get off the bench and show the Cavs that even though he already mailed in a playoff series against them last year, he’s still enough of a bonehead to do it again. You know, all the those Celticy little things we’ve come to know and love.
And after all that is said and done, LeBron will get his ridiculous stat-line, Jamison will get his 18 points without releasing the ball from above his shoulder even once, Anderson Varejao will draw 5 charges and 8 technicals, some kind of dude with an unnecessary J in his name will score a big three and follow it up with a 5 minute hand shake/rain dance, and the Celtics will go home.
I know this sounds bleak, and not very fun. But I promise you, it’s not like that. It will be a fun series. The games themselves should be fairly close – not the defensive slugfest kind of close, but the entertaining kind of close, as these teams have quite regularly produced in the past.
And don’t fool yourself into thinking that this series can’t affect the NBA title. In fact, this is the ultimate Cleveland gut check: for all of Lebron’s greatness, he hasn’t beaten a legit, top tier team in the playoffs since the Pistons in 2007. Unfair as that assessment may be, it’s on him to prove that he can hold up to that pressure. If he doesn’t against Boston, he won’t against Orlando/whoever comes out of the West.
As for the Celtics, this series can dramatically alter their future. If they somehow take this to 7, or even win (which I don’t see happening, at all, but you can never be sure in this league), then maybe they stay course, hope KG’s knee is better after yet another summer off, re-sign Ray Allen, sign another, strong mid-level bench guy (not like Sheed), and take another shot. If they lose in a blowout … well, then maybe it’s time to blow this thing up. (Fun side note: if Allen leaves in free agency, no team is a better fit for him than Cleveland. Nobody.) The whole Ubuntu, heart of a champion mentality of this squad will be put to the test here, even if it seemed like it abandoned them during the season.
And no matter what happens, whether this goes 4 or 7, we’ll get to see two very good teams doing what they do best. You can never go wrong with that. It’s just that at the end of the day, one of these teams is better than the other.
By quite a margin.
And they have Lebron.
Cavs in 5