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Ray Allen Must Be Utilized Against Cleveland

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After watching Sunday's showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers, I'm firmly convinced that if these two teams meet at some point during the playoffs, it's going to be one of those grueling, exhausting, in-your-face, exhilarating slugfests. 

And whenever a grueling, exhausting, in-your-face, exhilarating slugfest gets under way, a team needs its heroes to suit up and do their jobs. Which is why, if the Celtics and Cavaliers meet in the postseason, it's so incredibly vital for Ray Allen to be on his game. 

When you examine the matchups between the Celtics and Cavs, the obvious one sticks out: Paul Pierce vs. LeBron James. Stud vs. stud. Pierce has arguably the most difficult job out of anyone when these two teams play, because not only is he asked to try and slow James's offensive production, but at the same time, he's still expected to put in his customary 20 points per game - no easy feat with LeBron trying to lock him down on the defensive end. 

Two years ago I might have argued that Kevin Garnett had to be the difference-maker, with the likes of a past-his-prime Ben Wallace and an equally antique-like Joe Smith manning Cleveland's front line. But now, with Shaquille O'Neal set to return, Antawn Jamison now a major part of Cleveland's success (particularly on the glass), a young and athletic J.J. Hickson catching alley-oop lobs from James, and a bushy-haired walking headache in Anderson Varejao bolstering Cleveland up front, KG has his hands full. The same goes for Kendrick Perkins.

Rajon Rondo's job is no walk in the park, either. Mo Williams, despite any disliking I might have of him, can flat out shoot the ball. He's made 54.5 percent of this three-pointers against the Celtics this season and is averaging a very respectable 15.5 points. This isn't to say that Rajon can't contain him. It's just that, for whatever reason, it hasn't happened yet. If you'll recall, Williams was torching the Celtics in the fourth quarter back on February 25, when the C's lost by 20 to the Cavs at home. He had 14 of his 19 points in the final frame. So, until Rondo decides he wants to shut Williams down (which he's perfectly capable of doing), he has to be considered a major threat.

Which brings us to Ray Allen. In my opinion, he will be the X-Factor of any series these two teams are engaged in from this point forward. Without question, he has to exploit his matchup with Anthony Parker. Parker's arguably the worst defensive player in Cleveland's starting lineup, had a difficult time meandering through the sea of screens that were set this past Sunday, and he's no spring chicken himself at the ripe "old" age of 34. Ray's still got enough quickness in those aging legs of his to drive past Parker in a half court set, or make a move and stop on a dime for a pull-up jumper in Parker's face, or simply rise up and shoot over Parker's out-stretched hand as he comes off a screen. 

And beyond Parker, Cleveland's backups at the shooting guard (Delonte West) and small forward (Jamario Moon) spots aren't exactly fit to shut Ray down. Delonte (as many of us know) is tenacious enough to fight through screens, and Moon is long and athletic enough to potentially bother some of Ray's shots, even coming off of screens. But shut him down entirely? No way. Ray has to exploit these matchups, time and time again. He has to bury the Cavs to the point where Mike Brown and co. have to consider putting their best defensive player on him (LeBron), which will then, of course, open things up for Pierce. If Ray gets hot early enough, the Cavs will be forced to pick their poison - Allen or Pierce. 

The Celtics, as a team, need to recognize Ray's advantage, and make a concerted effort to get him involved not just early, but continuously, throughout the game. By the end of the first quarter on Sunday, Ray already had 10 points, and the Celtics as a team led by nine. What's more is he only hit one jump shot throughout the entire quarter - a three-pointer at the 7:53 mark. The rest of his points came on drives to the hoop, and off a steal on Zydrunas Ilgauskas that led to a basket and a foul. 

Regardless of how he's scoring, Ray has to get shots. I'm going to put the number at 15. Ray should get a minimum of 15 field goal attempts per game if the C's and Cavs meet in the playoffs. In the three games prior to his 17-shot, 33-point explosion against the Cavs, he took a grand total of 23 shots, and averaged just 12.5 points. In the In the five games prior to those three games, Ray averaged 13.6 field goals per game, and his scoring average jumped to 18.2 points per game. The Celtics are 11-4 this season in games in which Ray shoots at least 15 shots, and the four losses were by an average of just 5.5 points. 

Unfortunately, the last time we needed Ray to come up huge in a playoff series against the Cavaliers was in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals back in 2008. Going up against Wally Szczerbiak - an even worse defender than Parker - Ray could only muster 9.28 points per game, shooting just 32.7 percent from the field, and a truly abysmal (especially by Ray's standards) 16.6 percent from three-point nation. The C's were of course able to scrape through that series thanks to Pierce's miraculous Game 7 and P.J. Brown's ridiculously clutch elbow jumper. 

But for Ray, the struggles against Cleveland didn't end there. During the regular season last year, Ray only shot 36.6 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from distance, en route to averaging just 10.75 points per game against the Cavs. 

Fortunately, this year's been different, which should give us hope. Ray's averaged 22.5 points per game against the Cavaliers this season, and he's shooting 48.3 percent from the field, and a whopping 57.7 percent (!) from the nation in the process. Now that...is what I'm talking about. Not coincidentally, he's averaged 15 field goal attempts per game against the Cavaliers this season, compared to just 10.25 field goal attempts per game against the Cavs last season. And if you need even more convincing that Ray should get at least 15 field goal attempts per game against the Cavs, back in the '08 semis, when he was stinking up the joint, he was taking just 8.71 shots per game.

I never want to risk looking too far ahead, because a matchup with Cleveland certainly isn't guaranteed. But it never hurts to prepare. And Ray's shooting and scoring prowess must be utilized, if the C's want any hope of advancing past a potential matchup with the Cavaliers.