Despite the Orlando Magic being last season’s Eastern Conference champions, a host of NBA followers believe the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers to be the season’s top two beasts in the East.
As it so happens, the scheduling gods decided to pit the two powerhouses against each other to tip off the 2009-2010 NBA campaign. While a single game is but a footstep in the marathon of the NBA regular season, it’s a good chance to see what each team can do and what each team will need to do in order to be the last team standing after thecurtain closes.
On the basis of Boston’s impressive 95-89 victory in Cleveland—a place the Cavs went 39-2 last regular season—they are head and shoulders ahead of Cleveland for conference supremacy.
After starting off the game in pajamas and sleepwalking to an early 21-7 deficit, the Celtics displayed better balance and more versatility than the Cavs. Whether via Kevin Garnett post ups, screen/rolls, Ray Allen transition threes, or give-and-go’s to Rajon Rondo, Boston created better shots for more players than Cleveland did.
While Pierce didn’t come close to matching LeBron James’ numbers, he did seal the victory with ten straight fourth quarter points. The Celtics targeted Shaquille O’Neal in screen/rolls, and with Shaq too cumbersome to move, Pierce sunk a pair of mid-range jump shots to doom the Cavs.
Speaking of poor screen defense, whenever the Celtics targetedin a high screen, Rasheed Wallace would be wide open behind the three-point line. It was Wallace’s slick shooting—3-6 3FG—that helped the Celtics recover from their inauspicious start, while fending off the Cavs in the end.
Wallace, Pierce, Ray Allen, Eddie House, and Marquis Daniels all had the touch—9-19 3FG. Boston did an especially good job spotting up in transition.
Kevin Garnett appeared a step slow. He had no lift or explosion, yet he sank a critical fall away bank shot with Shaq draped all over him. Plus, as the game wore on, Garnett appeared more limber on the defensive end.
fought his way to near-even terms with Shaq, registering nine points to Shaq’s 10. Perkins even showed developing range on his jump shot, sinking two of five 12-foot jumpers.
Ray Allen was able to postfor profit.
Boston’s bench severely outplayed Cleveland’s bench. Daniels, House and Wallace made their shots while Ilgauskas, Daniel Gibson, Jamario Moon, and J.J. Hickson bricked theirs. Daniels even showed he might be able to play backup point guard in a pinch.
Boston sank their free throws, 22-26.
The Celtics fought harder for loose balls, and had more range to track down missed shots. Consider Rajon Rondo outworking Mo Williams to a debilitating offensive rebound leading to a Ray Allen jump shot, and Rondo again, taking a rebound away from Ilgauskas to secure another extra possession for the Celtics.
How many point guards make as many plays as Rondo does without being spectacular scorers?
Boston’s defense was much tighter than Cleveland’s, especially on the perimeter. Rajon Rondo wouldn’t let Mo Williams initiate Cleveland’s offense, Perkins was able to slug it out with Shaq, Marquis Daniels played quick-handed defense on LeBron for several possessions, and Rasheed Wallace continued to remind the world that he’s a Hall-of-Fame class help defender, both on his impeccable rotations and on his ability to show and recover on screens.
It was this defense that forced the Cavs to revert back to typical Bron-ball—dribble around, maybe get a screen, maybe not, and have everybody else stand and watch.
Not everything worked perfectly for Boston.
Rasheed Wallace showed no inclination to play in the post, a fact that is mitigated by Boston’s share of power scorers and their opponent’s interior muscle.
Boston, and especially Perkins, get careless on their screen-setting. Three-times this resulted in the offensive player needlessly mauling a defender and a foul being called.
Garnett looks two steps slower, and six inches lower off the ground when running and jumping. His high release and ability to unleash post moves without dribbling will compensate on the offensive end, but will he be able to cover ground defensively?
The Celtics still don’t have an adequate backup point guard.
Sheldon Williams missed nearly every single one of his rotations and had a pass flat-out go through his hands on offense. What do the Celtics see in him?
Still, the Celtics have a championship-caliber defense with offensive firepower. With Orlando a relative unknown with so many major new pieces, the Celtics are the safest pick to represent the East in the Finals.
First the good.
LeBron’s jumper was solid, 7-14 with better mechanics. He sank four of his nine threes, and connected on three of his five jumpers from within the arc.
Bron-Bron also had two of his customary highlight-reel blocks, stuffed a Pierce jumper back in his face, and closed out well on the perimeter. James’ halfcourt, on-ball defense was overrated last season, but he was solid against Boston.
Shaq was occasionally able to zone the basket defensively walling off Boston from a few good looks.
Anthony Parker hit two of his three standstill treys, and hit a nifty foul line jumper off a weak-side curl.
Daniel Gibson applied good on-ball pressure to Allen.
However, many of the same problems that sank Cleveland last season haven’t been rectified.
The Cavs still do a poor job defending power forwards who can shoot the three. The pick-and-pop game dissected them last season; how are they going to stop Wallace and Orlando’s suite of frontcourt gunners? The probable answer is that they wont.
While LeBron occasionally posted up with success, he was stationed down low too infrequently. In general, Cleveland’s offense lacked movement.
Shaq wasn’t a non-factor, but he doesn’t have the agility to trump a hard-working grunt like Perkins.
Mo Williams couldn’t get to where he wanted to go and compensated by jacking up bad shots and turning his head defensively. The better the competition, the brighter the lights, the more and more Williams gets exposed.
With Shaq mediocre, and Williams a disaster, the Cavs couldn’t find another player to create his own offense. Plus Jamrio Moon took quick shots and made an awful closeout on a Marquis Daniels three. They really miss’s toughness and versatility.
J.J. Hickson is a D-leaguer masquerading as a rotation player.
The Cavs screen defense was porous as was their transition defense in tagging spot-up shooters. Anthony Parker was guilty of this transgression, though perhaps Toronto doesn’t instruct their players to aggressively chase off the line. If so, this area could easily improve.
Still, the more things change, the more things stay the same. The Cavs are still too much LeBron, not enough everything else.
Erick Blasco is a contributing writer for BallerBlogger.com. Erick is attending Brooklyn College on a full scholarship. He is majoring in Television/Radio and minoring in English with the hopes of someday becoming a professional basketball analyst. Questions and comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.