By Aaron Jackson,
Very few, myself included, expected the Boston Celtics to do what they just did in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Maybe that was a lack of belief in the Celtics talent given their injuries, or maybe it was over-valuing a Philadelphia 76ers squad who had a lot of wins over the last couple of months against a lot of bad opponents. I have a feeling a mix of both is likely the real answer. Regardless, we now find them in the same position as last year with a very different roster. Here are five things to consider as they get set to play the Cleveland Cavaliers.
1. How do you attempt to contain LeBron James? I say contain because even the biggest Celtics homer wouldn’t say that anyone on the team can stop him. That’s how it works in the NBA. The superstars are going to get theirs, it’s just a matter of limiting the damage. For Boston the obvious answer that I’ve heard is simply “throw Marcus Smart at him and have him do his best. He’s a pit bull.” It’s a very flawed strategy in my mind. If you put Marcus Smart on him 25-30 minutes a game he will foul out every game of the series, both because LeBron is so physical and because he gets the superstar calls. A strategy of various players guarding him for small stretches with others playing help combined with Marcus Smart taking him on 1-on-1 in the 4th is what I think would lead to the most success.
2. What can the Celtics do to limit the post opportunities for the Cavs? This is where they can be different from last year’s team. Tristan Thompson and the Cavs front court had their way with Boston the entire series. This year, adding Aron Baynes provides another body to toss his weight around down low, and Marcus Smart showed success playing pest to their post players down the stretch of last year’s series loss. I expect the two will have a big impact on how far the Celtics can go in the series.
3. Watch out for Larry Nance Jr: Against the Toronto Raptors he was barely relevant, but I expect that will change against the Celtics. He’s a super athletic power forward that is very productive when given the minutes, and the Celtics just don’t have a Serge Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas to challenge them defensively. Al Horford is a very good defender, but he tends to play his best on big men that like to play the perimeter. I expect Ty Lue to utilize Nance early and often off the bench.
4. Can Al Horford lock down Kevin Love? As I mentioned Horford to me is at his best defensively when he isn’t forced to play super physical. Love has the size to be a physical forward, but often his game doesn’t match the look. Love is at his best offensively as a perimeter shooter, and while he had his struggles in the regular season, he’s been mostly good in the playoffs. If Horford can take him out of the equation on a nightly basis that could be a big step in winning the series.
5. How can the Celtics slow down the Cavs 3-point shooting? One of the things the Indiana Pacers did well against LeBron and company is they held them to 32 percent shooting from 3. Meanwhile the Raptors allowed them to shoot at a 41 percent clip. That’s a big difference. Part of that was Cleveland’s ball movement, as they averaged seven assists more per game in the second round, but part of that was also just contesting open looks. The Raptors were so focused on LeBron and his drives that they forgot to close out on shooters, and one thing we know about JR Smith and Kyle Korver is that they are very efficient on open 3’s. Brad Stevens will need to find a way to get his team to focus less on James driving to the hoop and more on staying with their man.
Aaron Jackson (@AaronRJackson on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.