The Celtics will beat the Cavaliers in Round 2 of the NBA playoffs.
There. I said it.
Call me a knucklehead. Call me old-school. Call me a fool (Cedric Maxwell did). This was my pick before the start of the playoffs.
It's right there in black and white, on the sports pages of The Boston Globeon April 15:
"I'm picking the old green guys to at least make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. That means they'll beat Miami in the first round, then beat Cleveland in the second round.''
Here we are a week and a half later and the Celtics and Cavs are on a collision course to meet in the second round. Both Eastern Conference powers own 3-1 series leads and will play at home to clinch their series Tuesday night. The Cavaliers stumbled in Game 3 in Chicago, but bounced back to win easily Sunday. The Celtics owned a 3-0 lead before losing to Dwyane Wade and friends in Miami on Sunday. Look for both team to close things out at home in Game 5. Then look for the Celtics to beat the Cavs in the NBA's best second-round series.
Sure, the Cavaliers had the best regular-season record in the NBA this year (61-21). Sure they have the Most Valuable Player in LeBron James. They added Shaquille O'Neal after their embarrassing playoff loss to the Magic last year. GM Danny Ferry beefed up his roster again with the midseason acquisition of Antawn Jamison. Anderson Varejao is a handful for any opponent.
But the old Celtics match up well with the All-Star Cavaliers. The Celts don't fear the Cavs. And deep down, the Cavaliers know the Celtics can beat them.
The C's and Cavs split four games during the regular season. The Celtics won the season-opener at Quicken Loans Arena back in October. Earlier this month, the Green beat Cleveland in Boston, 117-113. The Cavs beat the Celts twice, including an 108-88 rout at the Boston Garden in February.
Two years ago, the Celtics and Cavaliers met in epic seven-game playoff match which proved to be Boston's toughest test en route to Banner No. 17. The finale at the Garden featured a memorable mano-a-mano featuring James (45 points) and Paul Pierce (41). It kindled memories of the Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins shootout in 1988.
Conventional wisdom holds that the Celtics can't win this year because they are too old (six players over 30), they don't rebound very well and they are unable or unwilling to play the kind of defense that marked their title run two years ago. Kevin Garnett has never fully recovered from last summer's knee surgery and old guys can't sleepwalk through a 50-win regular season, then kickstart a championship run when the playoffs start.
I'm not bold enough to predict three more rounds of playoff victories for this Boston team, but I like the Celts against the heavily favored Cavs.
"I don't think there's a team that our players feel we can't beat,'' said Boston GM Danny Ainge.
The Celtics have the same starting five that won the championship two years ago. OK -- Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen are not better than they were two years ago, but Rajon Rondo is a much better player than he was in 2008, and Kendrick Perkins is two years stronger. Glen "Big Baby" Davis contributes much more than he did two years ago and the Celtics have added veteran snipers Michael Finley and Rasheed Wallace.
As much as it hurts to say this, the mercurial 'Sheed might be the difference against the Cavs. He's certainly rested. Wallace started the season out of shape and was content to launch threes throughout the regular season. He was the Secretary of Energy Conservation. He's been claiming he's a big-game playoff guy. We haven't seen much of 'Sheed during the Miami series, but the Heat have been so bad, it's hard to notice any Celtics' shortcomings. Maybe 'Sheed will finally shine at the Q.
Also, remember that a protracted playoff series -- with no back-to-back games and plenty of down time -- helps the old bones of Boston.
The Cavs have two things working for them: LeBron and Quicken Loans Arena. King James at this hour is the best player on the planet (how'd you like the 43-footer to close out the third quarter in Chicago on Sunday?) and he is on a mission. Home court proved to be the difference when the Celtics and Cavaliers met two years ago and the Cavs were 39-2 at the Q last regular season.
But the Celtics know they can beat LeBron. And they know they can win in Cleveland (see Oct. 27, 2009). They also know that the Cavaliers are running with baby grands on their backs.
The Cavaliers carry the weight of all Cleveland teams that failed in the last half-century. They are burdened by Earnest Byner's fumble and John Elway's Drive, and Jose Mesa spitting the bit in the 1997 World Series. Clevelanders live with the Curse of Rocky Colavito. The Cavaliers have not recovered from the stunning loss to the Magic in last year's conference finals. They play with the pressure of knowing that LeBron might be gone at season's end.
The Celtics are cagey enough and good enough to exploit all of the above. It's really not as crazy as it sounds.