There are C’s fans who don’t want to admit it, but Boston is the clear underdog against the Cavaliers. If you think the regular-season is irrelevant, or that regular-season trends don’t carry over into April and May, you haven’t been paying attention to the playoffs. The Cavs come into this series as the better team and the favorite. That is clear.
That doesn’t mean the Celtics can’t pull this off. The C’s are healthier than they’ve been at any point since Christmas, and they are still capable of bringing 48 minutes of world class defense on any given night. They can win a road game—two if necessary.
But a lot of things have to go right for Boston to beat Cleveland four times in seven games. We’ve discussed a few of them already—the importance of at least matching Cleveland’s production from three, being ready to counter the Cavs’ small line-up with LeBron at the power forward, and, of course, finding a way to guard LeBron without leaving the rest of the Cavs open behind the three-point line.
One other thing an underdog has to do: Exploit the favorite’s few weaknesses, and never allow the favorite to get an unexpected boost by turning one of those weaknesses into a strength.
In this series, that means two things:
1) Winning the turnover battle—or at least fighting it to a draw
If there is a chink in Cleveland’s armor, it’s that they can be sloppy with the ball. This is a team that ranks in the top-10—and usually the top-5—in just about every category in which it wants to excel. The exception: turnovers. The Cavs’ ranked just 16th this season in turnovers per possession after finishing tied for 6th in that category last season, according to Basketball-Reference. Cleveland coughed the ball up on about 13.5 percent of its possessions this season, up from 12.5 percent last season.
The Celtics, of course, have been among the most turnover-prone teams in the league since the KG/Ray trades. Boston turned the ball over on 14.5 percent of its possessions this season; only three teams were worse.
Turnovers aren’t the be-all, end-all of basketball. Various statisticians, including Wayne Winston, the former Mavs consultant, have shown that turnover margin has a smaller impact on the outcome of a game than other factors, including field-goal percentage.
But when you’re the underdog, every possible edge matters. And this is an edge the Celtics can have if they’re careful with the ball. The C’s force a ton of turnovers (only Golden State forced them more often), and they’ll force their fair share against Cleveland without gambling or compromising their defense. The silly turnovers on offense—the kind that kept Miami in Game 5 during the 1st quarter? Those have to go if Boston wants a chance at this.
In the Miami series, the C’s turned the ball over on 15.6 percent of their possessions, according to BR. That’s worse than their regular-season number and worse than every playoff team but Miami and Charlotte.
That will not cut it against the Cavs.
2) Protect the defensive glass.
This version of the Cavs is not a good offensive rebounding team. The Cavs ranked 21st this season in offensive rebounding rate, which measures how often a team rebounds its own misses. You’re tempted to chalk that up to the fact that Mike Brown is a Gregg Popovich disciple, and Pop’s Spurs haven’t cared about offensive rebounding since the late 1990s. But the Cavs were league average in offensive rebounding last season and #2 in the league in offensive rebounding rate in ’08. Of course, they had Ben Wallace in both of those seasons.
In any case, this Cavs team, the one the Celtics must beat four times in seven games, does not get a lot of extra possessions by crashing the boards. And if you want to beat them four times in seven games?
You cannot give them extra possessions. You must protect the defensive glass.
The Celtics were an inconsistent defensive rebounding team this year after ranking near the top in that category each in ’08 and ’09. They rebounded 73.8 percent of opponent misses this season, the 12th-best mark in the league, but they fell as low as 17th at various points.
This is non-negotiable: If the C’s don’t protect the defensive glass, they will not win this series.
Good news: They grabbed 77.4 percent of offensive rebounds against the Heat in the first round; only one playoff team has been better.
Keep it up, guys.
Game 1 is tomorrow.