The sun is shining in New York City, and when that happens in late April, I’m like a dog who senses the prospect of a walk in Central Park. In other words: Here’s a brief notebook to get you ready for Game 1, tonight, on TNT.
• Rarely do I read an analysis of the Celtics that teaches me something I had no idea to be true. But I read something like that on Friday: This piece at ESPN.com (Insider only) by Tom Haberstroh, of Hoopdata fame, about the C’s struggles converting shots at the rim against the league’s best interior defenses.
One of the things that will decide this series is which team is able to sustain its efficiency around the rim against the other’s strong interior D. Cleveland and Boston ranked #1 and #2 in the league in shooting percentage at the rim, with the Cavs (66.2 percent) holding a not-insignificant edge over Boston (64.4 percent). So these teams create good looks around the hoop and finish them.
But guess what? They are also two of the stingiest teams in the league in terms of holding opponents to low shooting percentages at the rim. Cleveland opponents hit just 58.3 percent of close shots (6th-lowest); Boston’s hit just 58.5 percent (8th-lowest), according to Hoopdata.
Which team wins this battle? Haberstroh says the regular season numbers favor the Cavs—big time.
Haberstroh studied how shooting percentages on at-the-rim shots for all 30 teams changed when those teams faced the 10 best interior defenses in the league (as measured by shooting percentage allowed on at-the-rim shots). Here’s what he found:
That’s right: Boston’s at-the-rim shooting percentage suffered the largest drop of any team in the league against the best interior defenses. Here’s Haberstroh:
All of a sudden, the elite Boston inside game looks decisively average. Turns out, the Celtics just feasted on weak interior defenses, hitting 67.4 percent of their at-rim attempts against the 20 worst defensive teams in that category.
And that brings us to the Celtics’ current opponent, the Cavs, owners of the league’s sixth-ranked at-rim defense. In the regular season, the Celtics shot just 51-for-92, or 55.4 percent, in their head-to-head matchups.
Bad times. If you’ve got Insider, go read the whole thing.
Interestingly, the C’s big guys didn’t shoot all that much worse from inside against the best defenses; instead, it was Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce whose percentages dropped the most against the best defenses this season.
More reason to agree with Doc Rivers that Rajon Rondo is the key to the series.
• It’s easy to say something like “Rajon Rondo is the key to the series,” and it’s easy to back that up by saying Mo Williams, an average defender at best, will be defending Rajon, and that Rondo should be able to smoke Mo.
But basketball is not nearly so simple, and Mark Murphy’s notebook today in the Herald explores the real reason why Rajon Rondo is among the keys to the series: The Cavs will play off of him at times, daring him to shoot the jumper, and the Celtics will have to find ways to score when this happens.
“Miami started to do it the last two games. Cleveland will do it the entire series. That’s what we’re going to see the rest of the way.
It’s his movement off the ball. When he has the ball there’s no issue. When he doesn’t have it he has to be a great cutter and great decision-maker. Once we swing it back to him he has to catch it on the run and be back on the attack.”
I wrote a detailed breakdown of how the C’s responded when Miami put Wade on Rondo at the end of Game 4 and had Wade basically ignore Rajon. On the surface, the results were ugly; the C’s scored only 8 points on 9 possessions, an awful scoring rate, and Paul Pierce reacted poorly to some aggressive Miami traps on screen/rolls.
But when you watched the possessions, you saw that the C’s now understand how to counter this defense after struggling against it last season. Rajon cut aggressively toward the hoop, he became a strategic screener and the C’s used all sorts of creative sets and movement to force switches.
They must continue to do that in this series.
Here’s Doc again on how Rajon must respond:
“It’s his movement off the ball. When he has the ball there’s no issue. When he doesn’t have it he has to be a great cutter and great decision-maker. Once we swing it back to him he has to catch it on the run and be back on the attack.”
• Doc told Murphy in this piece that he expects LeBron to spend a lot of time guarding Rondo:
“LeBron will guard Paul half the time, and (Rajon) Rondo the other half of the game, so Paul will be able to do different things.”
And Pierce will do his best to make LeBron work his butt off on defense when the King guards the Truth, according to Doc:
“We’re not going to go away from Paul because LeBron’s guarding him. Paul’s our offensive guy. Obviously, if you make anyone work on both ends it helps.”
• ESPNBoston’s Chris Forsberg picks the Cavs in 6:
But there are tough matchups here for Boston, and Cleveland’s ability to shoot the 3-pointer might ultimately be the difference. Boston struggled mightily defending the perimeter this season and rotations always seemed to be late getting out to the shooter. Cleveland finished second in the NBA this season in 3-point percentage (38.1 percent) and making Boston respect the outside game frees up the middle of the floor for James.
• Sean Deveney, writing at the Sporting News’ Baseline blog, predicts the Cavs in 5:
The Celtics looked much more like a championship hopeful in the first round than they did for much of the season. But they were playing the Heat. Now, facing a team that has much more depth and talent on hand, expect Boston to go back to looking a step slow.
Deveney also predicts that Sheed might be “a key player” in this series given how many bigs Cleveland might play.
At this point, every player other than Brian Scalabrine has been named a key to the series.
• Forsberg thinks the most important match-up of the series might be Glen Davis vs. Anderson Varejao. If you watched the Cavs-C’s games this season, you know Varejao absolutely terrorized Boston. He out-hustled all of Boston’s bigs on the glass and moved beautifully off the ball on offense, finding empty spaces just when LeBron was ready to pass the ball to an open man.
Davis thinks he’s the man to stop Andy V:
“He’s the biggest threat on the floor,” Davis said of Varejao. “At the end of the day, that’s what’s going to win the series is the energy guys.
“He’s everywhere. He’s a pest. He’s showing off screens, he’s getting his hand on balls. He’s getting rebounds. He’s getting easy putbacks, getting free-throw rebounds. His energy is a big key for that team. What he brings is hard to find. He’s the type of player that can determine a game.”
• Forsberg describes the C’s general defensive strategy against LeBron by looking back on their defensive strategy against Wade:
The strategy was rather simple: Let Wade have his — within reason — and challenge his teammates to beat the Celtics.
I’ve read this all over the place during the last couple of weeks—how the C’s let Wade “get his.” And if you’ll allow me to disagree with Chris Forsberg, I’m not sure that’s generally true. To me, the notion of letting a star player “get his” means guarding him one-on-one and trying to shut down his teammates. And the C’s were not doing that with Wade—not even close. They hedged aggressively on screen/rolls, they trapped and they sent a third man over to the strong side to stop his penetration.
They were for the most part gearing their entire defense toward containing Wade. I think a more accurate way to describe it would be this: The C’s overplayed Wade, daring the other members of the Miami Heat to beat them. Those players failed, and Wade is just so good that he scored bundles of points even though Boston was doing everything it could to get the ball out of his hands.
How will they guard LeBron? We’ll see tonight, but I expect the defense to look similar to what we saw against Wade and what Boston did against LBJ in the regular season.
• On a lighter note, the C’s tried to simulate LBJ’s ability to to make the cross-court skip pass when defenses overplay the strong side and leave a shooter open on the weak side. But they couldn’t quite pull off the simulation, according to the Globe:
“We worked on that today and there’s nobody on our team that can throw that [cross-court] pass, so the work didn’t look as good. We kept getting out there, and I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re throwing softballs.’ But he’s a great passer. In some ways even though he scores a lot, he wants to pass sometimes.’’
On that note, I’m out to enjoy the weather. Game 1 is tonight. We’ll be back with a post or two prior to the game and a recap after.