Eastern Conference Preview
This series becomes a lot more interesting if the Celtics have indeed "flipped the switch" and can harken back to a semblance of their championship form of two years ago. But we can't use their drubbing of the hapless Heat as proof: If Boston's defense allows the Cavs as many good shots as it gave Miami, the Celtics might get swept, because Cleveland won't clank them. Even so, it's not a coincidence that Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen collectively played better than they have all season, raising their intensity, shot selection and dedication to teamwork enough to foster legitimate confidence and momentum. And the emergence of Tony Allen and (to a slightly lesser extent) Glen Davis has clarified Boston's rotation off the bench.
The Celtics will need everything they can muster against the deeper Cavs, who are lacking only in psychological weaponry, which may be why LeBron James has masterfully controlled the media narrative, first with tales of his maniacal focus on these playoffs and more recently by dramatizing his elbow injury by wrong-arming a free throw in the closing seconds of a clinched series against Chicago. Rattling the ring-or-bust Cavs early is perhaps the best chance for a Celtics upset.
The King vs. The Truth. Even before he demoralized the Heat with his last-second jumper in Game 3, Paul Pierce had begun magnetizing his on-court leadership with a quiet swagger reminiscent of the 2008 postseason. But can Pierce come close to duplicating the yeoman defense he laid on LeBron two years ago? Since then, the biggest upgrade in James' game has been his ability to punish double teams with his pinpoint passing. If Pierce constantly requires reinforcements to contain James, not only will LeBron pick apart the Celtics by dishing to the open man, but their huge disadvantage on the boards will be even more lopsided: Kendrick Perkins won't be in good position to box out and Rajon Rondo can't crash the offensive glass (a specialty of his) out of fear of getting roasted in transition. Pierce also needs to keep sticking big shots so LeBron can't conserve energy or jump passing lanes roaming at the other end of the court the way he did against Chicago. Given that Pierce is an inch shorter, 20 pounds lighter and seven years older than LeBron, that's a tall order.
Cavaliers:Mike Brown. It has become fashionable to carp about Brown -- whose defensive orientation fits his pedigree as a Gregg Popovich disciple -- for his lack of offensive imagination and overall inability to steer LeBron and the Cavs to a ring so far. Add to that the burden of satisfying and maximizing a roster overstocked with talent, and the ransom general manager Danny Ferry and the rest of the front office are paying to persuade LeBron to stay in Cleveland. In the first round against Chicago, LeBron supported more time for second-year forward J.J. Hickson and the hustling, small-ball frontcourt that ensues when he plays. But the Cavs also have to get Shaquille O'Neal back in rhythm and playing shape in anticipation of a possible conference finals matchup with Dwight Howard and Orlando. Brown's decisions on player rotations will become even more fraught and scrutinized if Cleveland hits a bad patch, loses an early game or otherwise finds itself in the pressure cooker. The fight for minutes and touches becomes more acute for deep, talented teams in the postseason, as Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle discovered in his first-round loss to San Antonio and Portland's Nate McMillan's realized when he relied on injured guard Brandon Roy instead of healthier options to guide the team. Just cautionary tales for Brown, whose even-keeled temperament could be tested.
Celtics:Kevin Garnett. He and Antawn Jamison were born less a month apart in 1976, but Garnett's three years of NBA experience while Jamison was at North Carolina gave him a dominant edge (abetted by greater talent and athleticism) in their individual battles for most of their careers. More recently, Garnett's balky knees have reduced his effectiveness covering Jamison on the perimeter. He also needs to mentally prepare for Anderson Varejao pricking at his white-hot intensity down in the paint. Garnett got invaluable assistance from Tony Allen, who elasticized the Celtics' defensive in Round 1, but Dwyane Wade was still able to penetrate -- not a good sign with LeBron now on the docket. But if Garnett's mid-range jumper is as reliable versus the Cavs as it was against the Heat, Cleveland will also have some adjusting to do.
Beantown optimists believe the veteran Celts paced themselves to peak at the perfect time, and are gathering their considerable resources and experience to ambush the Cavs. However, if Boston does spring the upset, it will be one of the great NBA rope-a-dopes of all time. Cleveland can spread the floor with quality three-point shooters and a scrappy rebounder or two and while the game's best player goes to work. Or it can pound the paint with big men Shaq and/or Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Not only do the Cavs have role players to execute different styles, but they also possess quality backups for those role players. If Rondo is too feisty for Mo Williams, they can sub in Delonte West. If Perkins is holding his own against Shaq, they can plug in Varejao to bang or Ilgauskas to step out and pop the mid-range jumper. If Ray Allen gets free for good looks against Anthony Parker, they can switch to Jamario Moon. And then there's LeBron to seal it all up.
My head says the Cavs will win this in five. But after underestimating veteran teams with tough leaders and stable systems in the first round, I'm hedging. Cavs in seven.