Let's get one thing out of the way right up front. This series is all about the stars and defense. It is our Big Four vs. LeBron and to a lesser degree Jamison and Shaq. It is about who makes better rotations cleaner and adjustments faster than the other team does. If you win both those battles you win the series.
But what happens when those matchups play pretty much even? The playoffs tend to bring out the best in stars and these are two defensive minded teams. What if all of that is a virtual wash? Then it comes down to the little things. Here's a list of 10 that could swing this series one way or the other.
- Keeping emotions in check: We didn't lose anything because of KG's elbow in the last series, but it was still a lesson learned. If you thought Q was annoying, wait till we get a full series of Anderson Varejao. Just like D. Wade, LeBron is going to get a lot of calls. Shaq has a whole different set of rules just for him and he can be a bit frustrating to play against. These teams have a history of really not enjoying each other's company. How will the Celtics respond when things aren't exactly going their way and all they want to do is mop the floor with Sideshow Bob's hair?
- Perkins vs. Shaq: Nobody matches up with Shaq quite as well as Kendrick Perkins. A healthy, full speed Perkins that is. He had a very solid game 5 against Miami and by all accounts he helped to frustrate that other O'Neal (though I wonder how much of that was just the fork sticking out his back). But is Kendrick fully healthy? He hasn't really looked himself for half a year now. I keep wondering if we're going to hear about some kind of surgery in the offseason to repair a lingering issue.
- Give Ray Allen open looks early on in the game: Like it or not, Ray has become a streaky shooter. His averages are still pretty good but only because his outstanding games make up for the disappearing acts. Go to him early and see if he's got it. If not, then maybe rotate in Tony to be a pest and hope that he gets it going later in the game.
- Keep Delonte and Mo from getting hot from outside: Outside of LeBron, the one thing that scares me most is a 3 point barrage. They have shooters and they get wide open looks off of LeBron's penetration drives. I'd be very tempted to let LeBron have a few extra layups (he'll find a way to score anyway) in order to keep the shooters from finding a rhythm.
- Coaching Counter-moves: It isn't the coach that has the best strategy going in so much as it is the one that can react to the opponent's strategy and adjust on the fly. The two games where the Celtics had big leads and let them slip away give me pause. Nobody's going to call Mike Brown a great coach, but Doc needs to stay on his toes. Of course, I'm not sure how he's supposed to react to "LeBron is just killing us" but he's got to try all the tricks in the book (and make up some on the fly).
- Sheed vs. Jamison: Two guys that have not been big parts of this matchup in the past. Two "stretch 4" guys. Jamison gets the advantage nod on offense but Sheed can still defend circles around him (which is saying something!), so it might be a wash. I hope Sheed take's Flip's advice and takes Jamison down on the block at every opportunity. But hoping for something logical from Sheed is a fool's pastime.
- Big Baby: Is Baby back or is he going to disappear again? I actually like his chances of showing up in this series because he has the bulk to bang with Shaq and Z and is quicker than both of them. What he lacks in height he can hopefully make up for in agility. That isn't the case against athletic bigs like J. O'Neal or the entire Hawks roster. Maybe we can go a whole game without seeing him blocked by someone's forearm. Then again, there is J.J. Hickson.
- Tony Allen: He was a spark in the last series and did about as good a job on Wade as you could hope. Can he continue to bring it? If not, then maybe...
- Marquis Daniels?: Call him out of the doghouse, we may have some use for him this series. Already there are rumblings that he may get some minutes against LeBron because he's had some success guarding him in the past. How would you like that "opportunity?" Hey Marquis, I'll pay for your ticket to Cleveland if you stop that train coming at us at full speed. Good luck with that.
- The Unexpected: Something none of us has thought of yet is going to be critical. Who's the more mentally focused team? Who knows what it is like to slog through rough battle after rough battle with the attitude of "survive and advance?" Both teams have lots of experience in the playoffs. But who has been through the fire and won the title before? Just the Celtics. Hopefully that helps.
The first option is obviously to win the battle of the stars. I think that Rondo's maturity makes up for the downgraded Garnett. I think that LeBron is going to get some good help from Shaq and Jamison. But if those matchups are a wash and both teams are playing defense, then it is the little things that could kill or cure.