While the Eastern Conference has had more than its fair share of storylines and drama, the landscape of the conference hasn’t actually changed too much from what we all expected coming in. Before the season, projections of the four top teams in the Eastern Conference were largely consistent: Cleveland, Boston, Toronto, and Washington. As of today, the top of the Eastern Conference consists of… Boston, Toronto, Cleveland, and Washington. Nobody has really taken the expected path so far, and there certainly have been some surprises, but by and large, the East’s elite have stayed the same.
With that in mind, this week looks to be a significant one for the Boston Celtics. Tonight, they visit second-place Toronto, followed by a trip to Washington on Thursday, and then the infamous Paul Pierce Night at home against Cleveland on Saturday. Injuries have tempered these matchups a little bit, with John Wall and Kevin Love out for a significant amount of time. Still: this is the biggest week for Boston so far this season, and we’re reaching the part of the year where every game starts to feel more and more urgent.
Let’s take a look at the current state of each of the three teams and how they measure up against the Celtics right now.
Nobody wants to believe in the new-and-improved Raptors just yet. It’s hard to blame them, considering the franchise’s recent tendency to self-immolate in the playoffs. That said, this team boasts the third-best point differential in basketball at +7.3, three points better than the Celtics (who sit in fourth), and they’re accomplishing it by riding a deep group of young, athletic, two-way players. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan aren’t working nearly as hard as they have had to in recent seasons, and the team’s overall efficiency is through the roof as a result. The Raptors are a very real threat to steal the top seed in the Eastern Conference before the end of the year.
Similar to the Celtics, one of the biggest things to elevate Toronto this season has been their quality young depth. The Raptors don’t have a top-tier prospect on the level of Jayson Tatum, but they’ve hit on a ridiculous number of young players that look to be rotation contributors for a long time: players like O.G. Anunoby, Delon Wright, Jakob Poetl, Paskal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell. These Raptors can roll twelve deep in their rotation and leave precious few weaknesses to exploit on either end of the court. Masai Ujiri deserves a ton of credit for the way this roster has been constructed.
Everybody’s chipping in something for Toronto right now. Jonas Valanciunas is having his most efficient season ever, and he bullies teams on the offensive and defensive glass. Anunoby is a quality two-way player already, at only 20 years old, and probably should have been drafted 10 spots higher than he was. C.J. Miles has the greenest light possible from deep; 75% of his shots have been threes, and he’s canning 37% of them. The solid contributions of Wright and VanVleet have enabled coach Dwayne Casey to dial back Kyle Lowry’s minutes a whole five per game from last season, which will pay dividends come playoff time.
This isn’t to say the Raptors are completely flawless. No team outside of Golden State really is. The Raptors have struggled at times with late-game execution; most recently, losing to Washington at the last minute after Lowry missed two free throws and Serge Ibaka missed a three. They just seem to lose an inordinate amount of close games — January featured a four-point loss to Utah, one point to the Lakers, six points to Minnesota and Philadelphia, two points to Golden State, and one point to Miami. Those games included last-second shots by Wayne Ellington and Ricky Rubio, foiled second-half comebacks against the Warriors and Sixers, and a loss to a Timberwolves team that was missing Jimmy Butler. The closing minutes of games are a bugaboo for the Raptors right now and, fair or not, these issues won’t do much to quiet concerns that this team just isn’t built for postseason success.
Key Matchup: Jaylen Brown vs. DeMar DeRozan
Let’s address something here first: DeMar DeRozan’s improved three-point shooting is a mirage. Over an eight-game stretch from December 20 through January 3, DeRozan hit 25 of his 46 three-point attempts, a blistering 54%. Over the rest of his 44 games? He’s 34-of-129. That’s actually below his career mark of 29%. While the idea of DeRozan finally achieving some form of acceptability from range is intriguing, right now he appears to be the same guy he’s always been.
That’s not to say DeRozan is a bad player, because he’s played perhaps the biggest role in the Raptors’ improved performance this season. His 6.1 net rating is nothing to sneeze at, and almost double his previous career-high. While he’s not really making threes at a higher rate than he has previously, he’s been far more willing to attempt them, which has its own benefits for Toronto’s spacing. DeRozan was so averse to three-point attempts that teams could simply ignore him on the perimeter, knowing that he’d just dribble into their coverage to get to the midrange looks he’s more comfortable with.
That can’t happen anymore. While 30% three-point shooting won’t be blowing your mind any time soon, the threat of DeRozan actually taking the open looks he’s left with is enough to create some uncertainty for a defense. How many times do you think defenders have gone over ball screens against DeMar DeRozan in his career?
DeRozan’s game has just expanded to be so much more team-friendly. In addition to easing the Raptors’ spacing concerns, he’s assisting buckets at a career-best 25% rate. He looks more comfortable as a passer, making smart decisions out of the pick-and-roll. Sometimes, he even foregoes his own shot attempts to set up a teammate!
So what does this all mean for Boston? Typically, the Celtics are just a bad matchup for players like him. We’ve seen them overwhelm teams with their length and versatility on the wings all season. At 6’7″ and 220 pounds, DeRozan typically enjoys advantages in size and strength over opposing guards, but he doesn’t get that benefit here against Brown, who matches (if not surpasses) him in both regards. The priority is to keep DeRozan away from the rim and encourage him to fall back to his pet jumpers from the midrange. He’s an accomplished midrange scorer, to be sure, but if you’re forced to choose between his 45% shooting from 10-16 feet or his 65% mark at the rim, it’s an easy decision.
Brown is the key to all this. Jayson Tatum isn’t quite on his level as an individual defender, Marcus Smart is out injured, and Marcus Morris may be a little slow to check DeRozan for very long. Brown applies pressure as well as anybody on the roster, and he has the lateral agility to keep pace with DeRozan off the dribble, which makes him the natural fit to shadow him and force him into poor decisions.
You’re not going to entirely prevent DeRozan from scoring. He’s the kind of guy that will go get his 25 every night, one way or another. The complexion of the game changes if DeRozan shoots 40% from the field instead of 60%, though. The Celtics are well-stocked to slow down DeRozan and Lowry, and although the Raptors’ youngsters have acquitted themselves well this year, that creates a lot of pressure on their young role players to produce…
Wildcard: Raptors’ Young Role Players
…which brings us to their bench. As I mentioned, the Raptors’ youth movement has enabled them to scale back Lowry’s and DeRozan’s minutes. Come playoff time, rotations will be shorter and Lowry and DeRozan will see the court more, but some of these guys are still going to have to contribute under pressure. This creates a lot of question marks in their rotation. As their best perimeter defender, Anunoby is going to see time on players like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokoumpo, which is a lot to ask of a 20-year-old. Can they afford to give minutes to two huge plodders like Valanciunas and Poetl in a playoff environment? What about an offensive non-factor like Siakam?
The Celtics are uniquely built to check Lowry and DeRozan defensively. One of Marcus Smart or Terry Rozier will be able to shadow Lowry at all times, while DeRozan will have to contend with a murderer’s row of Brown, Tatum, Morris, and Ojeleye. Aron Baynes will probably get the start opposite Valanciunas, as that’s the kind of physical, low-post matchup Baynes excels in. If the Celtics can put pressure on those three guys, the Raptors are going to need some of the kids to step up, and that’s placing a lot of responsibility on players that don’t have much playoff experience.
In fairness, the Celtics will face many of the same problems against the Raptors’ defense. They’ve struggled to create much quality offense when Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are off the floor or just having a bad night. Brown and Tatum will have to get buckets, but they’re both still closer to complementary pieces on offense, rather than focal points. That leaves Boston’s best options for reliable scoring as Marcus Morris and Greg Monroe, and Monroe in particular might not be able to see the floor in crunch time.
- Kyle Lowry’s 2016-17 is starting to look like a bit of an outlier. He shot 52% from inside the arc last year, which led to an effective field goal percentage (57%) six percent higher than his previous best. That two-point percentage has come back down to Earth again this season, and his efficiency has suffered as a result (although it’s still his second-best season in that regard).
- It looked like Bebe Nogueira was on the verge of breaking out after last season, when he averaged eight points, eight boards, and three blocks per 36 minutes on career-high minutes. It hasn’t panned out that way. Nogueira has barely seen the floor, playing 10 fewer minutes per game than he did last season as he lost his role to Jakob Poetl. Somebody free Bebe!
- The Raptors have gotten the most mileage out of one lineup: Lowry, DeRozan, Anunoby, Ibaka, and Valanciunas. Those five have played 541 minutes together, and they’re killing teams to the tune of a 12.2 net rating this season. It’s second-best in the league among lineups that have played more than 500 minutes together, and for good reason.
- As good as that last lineup has been, the same group with Powell in place of Anunoby has been equally as bad. They’ve played 148 minutes and have a net rating of -10.0. This was the Raptors’ go-to lineup to open the season, and it was Powell falling out of favor and Anunoby claiming his spot that really kick-started the team’s surge this season. O.G. Anunoby is really good, you guys.
- I’ve mentioned it once already, but it’s hilarious how specific C.J. Miles’ role on this team has been. He’s taking eight shots per game, and six of those shots are threes. He exists solely to chuck from behind the arc, and I respect that. Stick to what you’re good at, C.J.
- Serge Ibaka’s career is going to be a very weird one to evaluate when it’s all said and done. Early in his career, he was one of the most prolific shot-blockers in basketball, but as he drifted out to the perimeter to better complement Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, his presence in the paint diminished just as much. Now he’s a sort-of-good rim protector and a sort-of-good three-point shooter who doesn’t really excel as either.
On paper, the Raptors may well be a better team than the Celtics this season, but they still have to answer a lot of questions about their ability to perform come playoff time. People are still justifiably unwilling to go along with the “the Raptors are good this time, for real!” narrative just yet. Lowry and DeRozan are both shooting 40% from the field in their playoff careers, after all.
I do buy in to these Raptors though, and of the three teams the Celtics face this week, I think they’re the biggest postseason concern. Moreso than the other two, this feels like a matchup that will require a massive series from Kyrie Irving. There are fewer mismatches to exploit here, and both teams feel like they check each other well, which is why I have to imagine this series ends up becoming a seven-game slugfest. Cliche as it might be to say, it’s going to be the team that makes the most big plays that takes this series, and Irving is both the biggest star and most decorated postseason performer on either team. Home court advantage could also be a big deal. Until we see the Raptors really turn it on in the playoffs, I give the Celtics the edge for that reason, but it’s very, very close.
Wizards-Celtics gets billed as a rivalry matchup, but the truth is that the rivalry isn’t as strong as it briefly was. Most of the biggest contributors on the Celtics’ side to last year’s heated showdowns play for other teams now. Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder are destroying Cleveland from the inside, Kelly Olynyk is being Kelly Olynyk on the Heat, and Avery Bradley was just traded for the second time in six months. The last bastion of last season’s tension is Marcus Smart, who certainly does despise the Wizards, but considering Smart seems to despise every team he faces, I’m not sure that really counts for much.
Rivalry or not, the Wizards still entered the season looking like a notable Eastern Conference foe for the Celtics, but this season hasn’t been the breakthrough many people expected for them. As of January 6 they sit in a virtual tie with Cleveland for third at 31-22, just 1.5 games ahead of fifth. Their record this time last year? 30-20. Even with John Wall slated to miss 6-8 weeks after undergoing knee surgery, the Wizards probably aren’t in great danger of dropping out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. They might be starting to sweat, though — their lead on 9th seeded Detroit is only 4.5 games, and that team just added a likely top-25 player in Blake Griffin.
While this year’s lack of forward progress is largely due to Wall’s injury struggles, there are still inherent problems with this roster that have carried over from last season. The bench has improved a little, mostly due to a major leap forward from Kelly Oubre Jr. and solid contributions from Mike Scott, but it’s still perilously thin. Tim Frazier, Jodie Meeks, Jason Smith, and Ian Mahinmi have been awful. They’ve had some interesting results with Tomas Satoransky starting at the point, but it remains to be seen if it’s sustainable or merely a hot streak. Either way, this team is still largely dependent on its dominant starting five, but that dynamic is fractured by Wall’s injury.
For the Celtics, Bradley Beal is the biggest concern here. He’s been a killer this season, alongside Otto Porter as one of the primary reasons this roster remains afloat. This has been Beal’s best season in the NBA, operating with a level of offensive control he’s never had before. Here’s the complete list of NBA players currently posting a usage rate of greater than 25%, a turnover rate of less than 10%, a true shooting percentage of greater than 55%, and an assist rate of greater than 15%:
Beal is attacking the basket more than he ever has in his career, beating his man in isolation or flying around screens. He’s making a blistering 69% of his shots at the rim, far and away the best mark he’s managed. Beal isn’t a straight-line burner like Wall, but he’s shifty. He changes speeds well, able to come to a nearly complete stop and immediately dart back to full speed.
His sometimes ill-advised pull-up jumpers have caught flack in the past, but he’s hitting 45% of such attempts inside the arc, in the same neighborhood as noted midrange marksmen like DeRozan and C.J. McCollum. Most of these looks come off Marcin Gortat’s traditionally brutal screens, and Beal’s lightning-fast release allows him to get the ball off before the defense can reach him.
At a glance, this season doesn’t look like anything super special for Beal statistically. His +4.1 net rating isn’t the best mark of his career – he’s been over +5 twice before. The degree of difficulty is just so high now, because he carries such a large responsibility for keeping this team alive. The concern for the Wizards becomes: can Beal hold up to such a heavy workload? He’s averaging career-highs in minutes and usage rate, and he’s struggled with injuries in the past. It puts the Wizards in the impossible position of needing Beal on the court to keep their season alive, but also needing to find some ways to get him rest to keep him healthy. Jodie Meeks and his 45% effective field goal percentage aren’t accomplishing that. If Beal misses any substantial amount of time the rest of this season, though, the Wizards’ playoff spot could be in serious jeopardy.
Key Matchup: Celtics bench vs. Wizards bench
At full strength, a playoff series between these Celtics and these Wizards very likely comes down to how the two teams perform when Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, John Wall, and Bradley Beal are not on the court. With that in mind, this is one of the rare times where I believe the Celtics have the edge in terms of depth. Celtics’ second units have struggled to score all season, but the addition of Greg Monroe is going to offer some consistency. Defensively, the bench is stacked: Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Daniel Theis, and Semi Ojeleye are all players who move the needle on that end. Aron Baynes would be a sensible starter opposite the burly Gortat, which would put Marcus Morris in his comfortable role chucking up basically whatever shot he feels like taking at the time.
Opposite that, I don’t know what the best second unit look for the Wizards would even be. Washington have trotted out a Satoransky-Meeks-Oubre-Scott-Mahinmi lineup for a whopping 147 minutes this season, fourth-most among their five-man lineups, and that group has vomited up a -5.1 net rating. They just can’t go with full platoon swaps, but without Wall, they also can’t really stagger anybody to lead those units. Otto Porter Jr. isn’t that kind of player; the most-used lineup featuring Porter and the bench (Frazier-Meeks-Oubre-Porter-Mahinmi) is only a +1.1 in a mere 25 minutes played.
In essence, the key to the bench matchup is which team suffers less when their stars sit. Right now, the Celtics have a very clear edge in that regard.
Wildcard: John Wall
It feels painfully obvious to me how this whole Wizards thing will pan out: they’re going to cling to the 8-seed, John Wall will come back before the playoffs, they’ll take the top-seeded Celtics to seven games, and my soul will depart my body.
In all seriousness, the Wizards season is going to depend almost completely on how Wall recovers from knee surgery. While they’ve had some solid moments without him, including last week’s big win over Toronto, it’s going to be challenging for them to stay afloat in the second half of the season. We’ve seen plenty of teams experience a short burst of improved play after a key injury just to slide back to expectations as it drags out.
A playoff series without him on the court seems almost insurmountable. Beal has a case for being the better individual performer between the two, but Wall is just too embedded in this team’s DNA. He assists on a whopping 43% of the Wizards’ baskets when he’s on the floor, his sixth consecutive season above 40% in that category. That’s the kind of production you just can’t replace that with Beal and Tim Frazier. With Wall, the Wizards’ starters have a +6.4 net rating. With Frazier, that number drops all the way to -4.5.
Complicating things is that when Wall has played, he hasn’t been playing to his usual standard. He’s made only 43% of his shots inside the three-point arc, the worst he’s done since his rookie year. His shot chart is a bloodbath.
The knee injury has no doubt contributed, but Wall hasn’t been attacking the basket particularly effectively this year. Midrange jumpers have never been a strong part of his game, but his percentages there have dropped horrifically. He shot 38% between three feet and the three-point line last season, but that’s dropped all the way to 30% this year. Defenses just look completely willing to go under every ball screen set for Wall, sagging back and conceding his unreliable jumper, and Wall is all too willing to settle for those shots. He’s shooting a career-best from behind the arc by a hair, but I’m willing to bet that’s because many of his threes are contested like this:
Washington needs John Wall, but they also need healthy John Wall, and it’s unclear if they’ll have that player again this season. A full eight weeks of rehab would have Wall back around two weeks before the beginning of the playoffs — is that enough time for him to get back to 100%? I’m skeptical, but the Wizards’ season might depend on just that.
- I’d never really bought in to his perceived upside, but Kelly Oubre has an outside case for Most Improved Player. He’s shooting a full 10% better from behind the three-point arc than he did last year, and he’s been the team’s best option off the bench this year. He’s a legitimate two-way wing player now, and he’s come impressively far from where he was last season.
- Of two-man lineups that have played at least 400 minutes together, Kelly Oubre and Otto Porter have a +6.0 net rating together, good for fourth-best on the team. The NBA has trended hard towards two-way wing players in recent years, and the Wizards have themselves a pair of quality young ones. Oubre should probably start sooner or later.
- Marcin Gortat is starting to decline. Playing predominantly with the starters has boosted him to a shiny +3.3 net rating, but he’s playing his fewest minutes since he was Dwight Howard’s backup in Orlando and his shooting efficiency and rebounding are taking sharp steps backward. Considering his defense has never been something to write home about, the Wizards are soon going to have to ask the question of whether Gortat brings enough to the table to justify his starting job. The issue: they don’t really have any viable bigs to replace him.
- Tomas Satoransky is intriguing. The Wizards have posted an absurd +33.9 net rating with Satoransky occupying Wall’s starting spot in 119 minutes played, many of them coming during the team’s recent hot streak. That’s an obviously unsustainable figure, but Satoransky is shooting 40% from behind the arc (only 49 attempts, but still) and stands 6’7″, which affords him some positional versatility. He might be the right kind of weird to support a Beal-led Wizards roster while Wall recovers.
- The Wizards had to be hoping for more when they traded for Tim Frazier this offseason. I thought it was a clever move at the time, because he’s a decent passer who can at least hold his own offensively, but he just hasn’t brought the Wizards much value. Washington has been awful with him on the floor – his net rating is -4.1 – and he’s dwindled down to a mere 15 minutes per game on the season. He might not even deserve that many.
- On the bright side for the Wizards’ bench, Mike Scott has been everything Frazier hasn’t been. He’s shooting absurdly well (64% eFG%), and you have to wonder if he should be playing more than the 18 minutes per game he’s been playing this year. It’s a shame he’s not four inches taller or he could take over the center position from Gortat.
The Wizards’ encore to their buzz-worthy 2016-17 season has been a disappointment so far, in no small part due to a knee injury that has plagued John Wall all season and will now hold him out of the lineup until the end of May or early April. Washington now have to keep themselves alive for two months without Wall, in the tightly contested middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Only five games separate the third-place Cavaliers from the ninth-place Pistons.
It’s going to be very difficult for the Wizards to distinguish themselves without Wall in the lineup. Bradley Beal is playing the best basketball of his career, and he’s been among the best guards in the Eastern Conference this season, but the Wizards are built around Wall’s ability to run an offense, and that’s something Beal can’t replicate. The team has had an absurd assist rate since Wall went under the knife, but I need to see it for more than a few games to believe in that.
The issue is compounded by the fact that the Wizards’ bench is still perilously thin, and they’ve struggled with newcomer Tim Frazier occupying Wall’s starting spot. Players like Jodie Meeks, Ian Mahinmi, and Jason Smith have been borderline unplayable.
For the Celtics, the Wizards don’t feel like a serious threat right now, but that also feels like a statement that could come back to bite me. As I mentioned before, the nightmare scenario is that John Wall comes back healthy and they face the Celtics in the first round as a tougher-than-they-look eight seed. They’re on a hot streak and they always play the Celtics tough, but if the Celtics are at full strength, Thursday’s game is one they should win.
If you’ve spent just 15 minutes on Twitter this season, you’re probably aware of just what a mess the Cavaliers are right now. They’ll enter play tonight having lost 13 of their last 20 games, and their locker room seems to be eating itself. Kevin Love broke his hand and is expected to miss up to two months, but before that even happened, players were accusing him of faking an illness.
Isaiah Thomas has been one of the worst rotation players in basketball since returning from his hip injury, and while I think he’s still far from 100%, it’s not unfair to question if he will be able to regain his 2016-17 form. On-court performance aside, Thomas seems to be a big contributor to the contentious locker room, though whether he’s the source of it all or not is unclear. J.R. Smith isn’t making any shots, Jae Crowder’s two great Boston seasons look like more of an outlier every day, and Derrick Rose has been perhaps the worst player in the entire league. Cleveland is bad.
Even setting aside all of that, the fact is that the Cavaliers haven’t outplayed the Celtics in a half of basketball that didn’t feature a horrific broken leg. The Celtics stumbled dazedly through that first half of the opener after Hayward went down, returning to the locker room with a 16-point halftime deficit. They rampaged back into the game in the third quarter, and although the rally didn’t net them a win, they’ve looked to have the Cavaliers under control ever since. In their January rematch, they clamped up LeBron and the Cavaliers’ offense to the tune of a 102-88 win. Love went 1-of-11, Crowder went 2-of-12, and the Cavs hit only eight of their 32 three-point attempts. It was jarring to see a LeBron-led team look so hapless, especially considering how he’s throttled the Celtics since returning to Cleveland.
Kevin Love’s injury will keep Saturday’s game from being an especially great litmus test of how these two teams stack up against one another, but there’s still a lot to look for. Cleveland really needs this game because, at this stage, dropping out of the top four of the East is starting to look much more likely than climbing back near the top.
They’re now within two games or less of Washington, Milwaukee, Indiana, and Miami, and the coming schedule isn’t getting easier. On Wednesday, they host the Timberwolves on the second day of a back-to-back, and the remainder of February will also bring matchups against Oklahoma City, Washington, and San Antonio. Cleveland needs to string together some wins, and they’re going to have to prove they can beat quality competition to do it. In that sense, a conference win against Boston would be huge for them.
Key Matchup: Everyone vs. LeBron James
You just have to hesitate before writing off the Cavaliers, even with all the dysfunction surrounding that team right now. The Cavs’ problems go deeper than their usual regular season malaise — their point differential is now in the red and their defense is perhaps the worst in the entire league. Even LeBron has been a – at best – a non-factor defensively for a few years now. This team won’t be able to just flip a switch and find an extra postseason gear.
And yet, he’s still LeBron James, the most indomitable offensive player since Michael Jordan and a top-five MVP candidate this season even as the Cavaliers are in disarray. Any conversation about this year’s Cavaliers and how they might perform in the playoffs has to begin with him. He’s still the only player in the league capable of dragging a team to a series win single-handed, after all. LeBron has slowed down some since his blistering start to the season, but “slowing down” for him still looks like 27-9-8 on an effective field goal percentage of 60%. Close to 43% of the Cavaliers’ baskets are assisted by LeBron when he’s on the floor.
It feels trite to say I’m not sure the Celtics have an ideal matchup for LeBron, because the only “ideal” matchup in the league against him is probably Kevin Durant. Still, even as good as this team is defensively, holding LeBron in check is a uniquely difficult goal. In the season opener, sans Hayward and Marcus Morris, LeBron simply wiped the floor with Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Semi Ojeleye.
It was the NBA debut for the rookies, of course, but still. In January, the Celtics held LeBron to “just” 19 points on “only” 53% shooting, which counts for as much of a victory as you can have against him. The difference in that game? Marcus Morris.
Morris is a bigger and more physical presence than Brown or Tatum, and when Brad Stevens employs him and Al Horford against LeBron, the Celtics are more effectively able to cut off some of his thunderous drives to the basket. The defensive philosophy against LeBron has long been to force him into shooting jumpers, and while he’s matured as both a shooter and passer to the point where it’s dangerous to stick to that tenet too closely, it works out in Boston’s favor when they’re healthy. In the first half of the January game, he got to the rim at will as he always seems to do. In the second, though, Morris, Horford, and Ojeleye were able to muscle him away from the paint and encourage more midrange jumpers. He would make only one of his six second-half attempts.
It’s virtually impossible to freeze LeBron for more than a single game, and I’m not betting on it happening across a seven-game series. He’s going to go off, more than once. The question is whether the Celtics can get in his way enough to prevent him from burying them by himself. How they perform when they host him this Saturday will be enlightening in that regard.
Wildcard: The Trade Deadline
It’s entirely possible that by the time the Cavaliers come to Boston this weekend, half their starting lineup is different. The Cavs have been linked to just about every notable player available on the trade market, and just about every player on the roster short of LeBron is likely to be available. It’s easy to make fun of Cleveland’s desperation to make a move, but it seems like some of these possible deals are being sold short. If the reported “Iman Shumpert and Channing Frye for George Hill” trade indeed happens, that’s a nice short-term roster upgrade. Ditto any deal that turns Tristan Thompson into DeAndre Jordan.
It might not be possible to completely fix the Cavaliers’ abysmal defense, as the issues seem to be deeply rooted in the construction of the roster itself. They’d certainly help, though. Hill and Jordan are both plus defenders who bring a lot of value offensively and would fit well in a lineup with LeBron James. Imagine the pressure they could put on a defense using plays like this, with LeBron playing the role of Griffin, (healthy) Isaiah Thomas or Dwyane Wade in place of Williams, and Hill and Kyle Korver lurking behind the arc for the catch-and-shoot.
None of these deals really move the needle for Cleveland in a hypothetical series against Golden State or Houston. There usually aren’t any players who could accomplish something like that available at this time of year, even moreso now that DeMarcus Cousins is out for the season. They could go a long way in solidifying the Cavs’ place in the Eastern Conference, though, and if they can claw their way into the Finals, LeBron at least gives them a puncher’s chance.
- LeBron James has a negative net rating (-0.8) for the first time since his rookie year. It’s been really hard to evaluate his season so far; the individual numbers are spectacular, but the peripherals are bad and he’s not playing any semblance of defense at this point. He’s the hardest likely MVP candidate to evaluate, for me.
- A great example of how much the Cavs’ roster has been in flux: they only have two lineups that have posted more than 100 total minutes this season. The second of the two (Thomas-Smith-LeBron-Crowder-Love) has a gruesome -22.3 net rating.
- The Cavs’ best bench players, weirdly, have been Dwyane Wade and Jeff Green. Wade in particular has fortified a lot of bench lineups as a lead guard, and his experience has helped Cleveland’s bench lineups defensively. It’s probably the most effort Wade has put into his defense since the “Big Three” Heat, if not even further back than that.
- Jose Calderon is shooting over 44% from the three-point line and has possibly been the best player to line up at point guard for Cleveland this season. That’s a problem.
- Kyle Korver is the most underrated shooter in NBA history, even though everyone knows he’s a great shooter. He’s making 43% from behind the arc this season, and he’s only dipped below 40% from deep four times in his NBA career. The worst of those seasons? 38%. He once shot 49% while taking six threes per game! Ridiculous.
- It can’t be overstated how much Derrick Rose doesn’t belong on an NBA roster right now. He really doesn’t add anything on either end of the court. It’s still crazy to consider that the Cavs jumped on Kevin Love for “faking an illness,” but had nothing to say about Rose literally going AWOL to get married earlier this year. Winning (or rather, losing) really does change everything.
The Cavaliers are in complete disarray at the moment and fading fast in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Only two games separate them from seventh place in the conference. That said, the team still employs LeBron James and they have an opportunity to make some notable updates before the Trade Deadline if they’re so inclined. Cleveland has a lot to sort out in the coming weeks, and a fairly rough upcoming schedule isn’t doing them any favors. February could be make-or-break for them.
The Cavs haven’t performed particularly well against the Celtics this season, and their overall performance to-date just hasn’t been very good. They have a negative point differential and one of the worst defenses in basketball. They feel like less of an immediate threat and more of a “If they get it figured out…” hypothetical at this moment in time. LeBron James has been owning the Eastern Conference for years, though, and his presence makes them tough to completely write off come April. Things seem different with this Cleveland roster, but I’ll continue to be hesitant until I actually see them lose in the playoffs.
Ultimately, this week isn’t quite as formidable of a gauntlet for the Celtics as it looked to be a couple months ago. Cleveland has been a disaster on and off the court and are now missing Kevin Love, and while the Wizards have been hot of late, they’re not the same team without John Wall on the court. Those are both games the Celtics should win.
Toronto is the concern here, as they’re only two games behind the Celtics in the Eastern Conference and are almost three points better in terms of overall point differential. The Raptors have made some really impressive strides this season; their young players are emerging as solid contributors, and it’s enabled them to ease some of the strain on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan has also transformed into a candidate for MVP votes, scoring at the most efficient rate of his career and creating for his teammates better than he has in the past. The Raptors are deep and playing great two-way basketball, and despite their shaky history in the NBA Playoffs, they should be taken seriously. A win tonight would give the Celtics a big boost to their chances of holding on to the Eastern Conference’s top seed.