Celtics Clobber Cavaliers in Preseason FinaleBoston outscored Cleveland 43-21 in the last 15:43 of the game to post a 114-89 win in the preseason finale for both teams. Kevin Garnett not only had a triple double (21 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists) but he had game-high totals in all three categories. Ray Allen added 20 points, including 11 in the third quarter; his back to back three pointers near the end of that period kicked off Boston's decisive closing run, quickly pushing Boston's lead from 71-68 to 77-68. Paul Pierce had 12 points--all in the first half--and six assists. Larry Hughes led Cleveland with 18 points but shot just 7-17 from the field. He also had four assists, four rebounds and four steals. LeBron James scored 17 points but he also had a poor shooting night: 7-18. Three things that Cleveland relied on during last year's run to the NBA Finals were great performances by James, solid defense and excellent rebounding; the Cavaliers fell short in all three areas in this game. James played close to his normal minutes but produced subpar numbers across the board, Cleveland got outrebounded 41-32 and the Cavaliers allowed the Celtics to shoot 45-76 (.592) from the field. James would have attempted more than four shots in the second half if this had been a regular season game and the poor rebounding was likely a one game aberration. The third number is undoubtedly the most distressing one to Cleveland's coaching staff. Head Coach Mike Brown and Assistant Coach Hank Egan come from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree and they emphasize the importance of contesting shots to lower the opposing team's field goal percentage (yes, that sounds like something obvious that all teams would want to do, but some teams place a greater emphasis on forcing turnovers or keeping the ball out of certain players' hands or certain areas of the court).
Boston took a 5-0 lead in the first :43 of the game. I have not seen all of Boston's preseason games but during the NBA Europe Live Tour I noted that on Boston's first possessions Pierce made strong moves into the paint and drew fouls. As I commented then, "Starting the game with Pierce attacking the hoop is a good idea for several reasons. One, it increases the chance of getting Boston in the bonus (and the other team in foul trouble) early in the quarter. Two, it sets an aggressive tone. Three, I think that his scoring average is a little more important to Pierce than it may be to Garnett or Allen, so it is good to get Pierce involved in the offense very early in the game." Against Cleveland, Pierce got the ball right after the opening tip and drove to the hoop from the left wing, scoring a layup and drawing a foul on James. Pierce made the free throw and this play set the tone for the Celtics, who dominated the paint for most of the game. The Cavaliers missed eight straight shots at one point and they trailed 33-22 by the end of the quarter.
The Cavaliers fought uphill against a double-digit deficit for most of the second quarter but managed to pull within 57-51 by halftime. Garnett already had 11 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, while James had 13 points on 5-14 shooting. During ESPN's halftime show, Jalen Rose and Stephen A. Smith each offered their Eastern Conference predictions. Rose's top five teams are Chicago, New Jersey, Detroit, Boston and Orlando, while Smith likes Boston, New Jersey, Detroit, Chicago and Miami. Later, during ESPN's telecast of the Lakers' 101-97 win over the Kings, Hubie Brown listed these teams: Detroit, Chicago, New Jersey, Boston, Toronto and Washington. He said that you have to "worry about" whether Cleveland and Miami have enough depth to even make the playoffs. Brown considers Milwaukee and Atlanta to be possible dark horses. I already posted my Eastern Conference preview but I have to comment about what Rose, Smith and Brown said. As longtime readers know, I greatly respect Brown but I think that he and the others all are overrating Detroit. The Pistons' core group is getting older and declining and I don't believe that their rookies will make as big of an impact this season as some people seem to think. I agree that Chicago has to be listed near the top. New Jersey is a team that I have expected to do big things the past couple years but the Nets always fall short. Yes, Nenad Krstic is back but I don't expect the Nets to be one of the top five teams in the East. I am also not convinced that Boston will automatically vault to the top of the conference. I realize that saying that in a post about the Celtics' 25 point win over the defending Eastern Conference champions may sound odd but let's see what happens when the real games begin. Smith is nuts to have Miami fifth; I ranked the Heat eighth and would not be surprised at all if they miss the playoffs. I am surprised that Brown put the Wizards in his top six. Washington does not play good defense, is soft in the paint and it is not yet clear if Gilbert Arenas is completely recovered from his knee injury (he sat out Washington's final preseason game, a 98-64 loss to Toronto, after having fluid drained from his knee). Of course, the most notable missing name on all three lists is Cleveland. The Cavaliers concluded the preseason with a 1-5 record and many people seem to believe that the sky is falling alongside Lake Erie because key reserves Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic are holding out. Obviously, Cleveland misses both players a lot, particularly Varejao, who provided rebounding and defense while also running a very effective pick and roll play with James. If I had really thought that they would miss a lot of regular season games--which now seems to be very possible--then I might not have picked Cleveland to finish first in the East. Still, I am not backing away from that selection just yet and I am surprised that so many people think that the Cavaliers might not even make the playoffs. Pavlovic's contributions can be more than replaced by Daniel Gibson, Shannon Brown, Devin Brown and a healthy Hughes (provided he stays healthy, of course). Cleveland has won 50 games each of the last two seasons, so to say that the Cavaliers will miss the playoffs is to suggest that they will win no more than 40 games this season. Is Varejao really worth 10 or more wins? Superstar players are worth 10-15-20 wins, not energy guys off of the bench. That is why Cleveland is not acceding to Varejao and Pavlovic's salary demands: neither guy is worth what he is asking for and to give in would cripple Cleveland's ability to add more players in subsequent seasons. Cleveland may struggle at first--they have several road games early in the season--but James will be super again, the defense will be very good and the Cavaliers will be contending for the conference title come playoff time.
Damon Jones nailed three three pointers in the first six minutes of the third quarter as Cleveland cut the lead to 63-61. It looked like the Cavaliers had recovered from their slow start and were in a great position to win the game. Then Rajon Rondo started driving to the basket at will, Allen rained down three pointers and Boston led 86-73 by the end of the quarter. That is still a workable margin with 12 minutes to go but Boston scored the first 14 points of the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach; the Cavaliers went nearly five minutes without scoring and they certainly did not make up for that by playing good defense.
The Celtics do a great job of sharing the ball and their three stars are not getting in each other's way on offense. By that I mean that the spacing is good, no one is forcing shots and each player has opportunities to do what he does best--Garnett is slashing to the hoop, shooting face up jumpers, and firing fadeaways from the block (which I still don't think is a great shot but he does make a lot of them); Allen is shooting jumpers from all angles while also showing that he can pick and choose times to drive; Pierce is posting smaller players, facing up slower ones and not forcing anything. The test for the Celtics will be how they perform down the stretch in close games. I'm not saying that they cannot pass that test but there is no getting around the fact that they must prove that they can do this.
The Cavaliers miss Varejao and Pavlovic but they still have the best player in the East in LeBron James and they still have a core set of defensive principles that formed the basis for their success last season. It was not a fluke that they made it to the NBA Finals and they will be a tough out in this year's playoffs as well.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:37 AM