Before last year's first round series with the Cavaliers, I wrote about how important it was that the Celtics were facing the East's best. Anybody that was going to come out of the conference in the next three years was going to have to go through Cleveland to get to The Finals. With Boston in the midst of a rebuild, they needed to know what it took to take down Goliath.
An off-season and a quarter of a regular season later, they've got a chance to see how far they've progressed. The Celtics come into tonight's game 14-10 with impressive wins (and losses) under their belt, but a game against LeBron James and Cavs is the true test. They were swept in April, but since then, they've made many adjustments.
The playoffs are a different brand of basketball: it's slower, more deliberate, and every possession matters. Eight months ago, the Cavaliers were able to force the Celtics to their slower pace and the teams averaged 93.2 possessions per game. This season, Cleveland is still one of the slower paced teams in the league, averaging the second lowest number of possessions at 95.63. Boston, on the other hand, ramps up the pace. They're 4th in the NBA at 101.25.
Much of that can be credited to their ability to generate turnovers. They lead the NBA in opponent TO's at 18.4. To beat Cleveland, they're going to have force their style of defense-to-offense basketball and get easy buckets on the break. The Cavs are an average team at taking care of the ball and siccing Avery Bradley on Cleveland's young starting guards like Brad Stevens did with Steph Curry could be the answer.
And then there's the issue of Jae Crowder handling LBJ. In last year's postseason, the Celtics did not do a great job of keeping LeBron out of the paint in the playoffs. Here's his shot chart from April:
But so far this season, they've done a better job of keeping hard charging wing players like James at bay. Here are the shot charts of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Paul George (X2):
Paul George has lit them up, but a lot of it has come from the perimeter. The Celtics haven't given up a lot of easy baskets around the rim to superstars, but as we know, LeBron James is a different story. This season, more than half of his shots are coming 8 feet from the rim or closer. With a healthy Kevin Love spacing the floor, he's got room to attack the rim and kick to shooters.
Fortunately, the Celtics have added some rim protection since last season. Amir Johnson has replaced Tyler Zeller in the starting lineup and he's done admirably as a defensive anchor. Johnson paired with versatile defenders like Jonas Jerebko, Marcus Smart, Crowder, and Bradley have been able to keep Boston in the top half of the league when it comes to keeping teams outside of the restricted area.
Unfortunately, there's still one aspect of the game that the Celtics have not fixed since facing the Cavs. Boston is 6th in the league in allowing offensive rebounds which has hurt them to the tune of 13.7 second chance points (8th worst). In last year's first round series, it felt like every time Boston was going on a run or needed to, Cleveland--particularly Tristan Thompson--would outwork them on the glass and extinguish all hope. If Cleveland is going to play slow, Boston can't give them any second chances because they're not boxing out.
Time hasn't healed all wounds from that last year's sweep--Crowder is still looking for an apology for J.R. Smith--but time has certainly helped a lot of Celtics find their way with the team. If you've kept up with CelticsBlog over the last few weeks, we've covered the development of Isaiah Thomas as a point guard, Kelly Olynyk's aggressiveness, David Lee's effectiveness off the bench, and James Young's growth as a player. So many Celtics seem to be peaking at the right time during this stretch of 15 games where only three of the teams are under .500. So far, the Cetlics are 6-3. On to Cleveland.