Truth is, the Celtics aren’t going to push this series beyond five games, right? … Right? … I mean, it’s not like Brad Stevens has a history of taking Cinderella to the big dance or anything … RIGHT? OK, I’m going to talk myself into this thing if I don’t look at some cold hard facts real soon, so let’s do this.
The Cavs weren’t really the Cavs until acquiring Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in early January, adding the defense and 3-point shooting that helped LeBron James achieve legendary status in Miami. And the Celts weren’t really the Celts until acquiring Isaiah Thomas, Jonas Jerebko and Gigi Datome at the Feb. 19 trade deadline, adding the scoring punch and lineup flexibility that helped Stevens achieve wizardry status. So, in the interest of fairness, any tale of the tape for these two teams should start with a completely arbitrary date between their current story arcs. Let’s say Feb. 3.
[Editor’s Note: Just kidding. Feb. 3 totally isn’t arbitrary. It’s the date that makes Boston look best agains Cleveland, because otherwise a tale of the tape between them would be like asking the late great Manute Bol to pose for a photo alongside Muggsy Bogues. And who would do such a thing?]
Here we go. All of the per-game and advanced statistics below were culled from NBA.com/stats.
Stating the obvious, the Cavaliers have a seismic advantage on the offensive end, where they own the NBA’s top true shooting percentage — including the fourth-best 3-point percentage (38.4) on 31.2 attempts from beyond the arc per game — and commit fewer fouls in a league that caters to its stars.
There are a few measures that offer the Celtics hope. Since Feb. 3, they possess a top-10 defense, and no team has guarded the 3-point line better — thanks to bulldogs Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart on the perimeter. The C’s also can make the rather strange claim that they rank second in field goal attempts and ninth in field goal attempts allowed, as they play at a furious pace, commit few turnovers while both forcing and scoring off them on the other end, and score often when given second chances.
All of those are positives against an offensive juggernaut, and it’s easy to see why Ainge told WEEI on Friday the two biggest keys for the Celtics are: 1) ‘We need to make a high percentage of our 3’s in order to win this series,” and 2) “We need to prevent them from getting open-court baskets.” So, the 3-point line — making them on one end and defending them in the halfcourt on the other — is where the series will be decided. Then again, outplaying the Cavs on both ends isn’t a revolutionary strategy.
“In a series like this, they just have a much greater room for error than we do, and we just have to play at our best,” added Ainge. “We need five or six guys playing the best basketball they’ve played, and our guys are capable of it. It’s a tough, tough mountain to climb, but it’s fun. It’s a fun opportunity for us.”
Now for the individual matchups. These Basketball Reference statistics are based on the full season.
While Smart’s size advantage and aggressiveness might slow the Irving, the smaller Bradley will share the defensive load, and the three-time All-Star’s offensive explosiveness wins out over both of them.
When engaged, Smith can be more than serviceable offensively, as evidenced by his 2012-13 Sixth Man of the Year campaign with the Knicks , but his streakiness can be just as much a detriment as an asset, and Bradley’s consistency as an All-Defensive talent with a decent jumper gives him a slight edge.
James is a four-time MVP and two-time champ. He is, as Stevens so often says, still the best player in the NBA, regardless of who takes home this year’s MVP honor. Turner, for all his progress as a facilitator, is still Evan Turner, and the only comparison between the two is their status as top-2 picks.
The numbers make this matchup seem closer than it actually is, as Love was one of the top-10 players in the league just last season, and while Cleveland’s proven incapable of properly maximizing his talents, he’s still a three-time All-Star with superior scoring, rebounding and playmaking capabilities.
Just think, if the Cavaliers had managed to hold onto Zeller over the summer, they probably wouldn’t have had to give up two first-round picks for Mozgov at midseason. And while the Russian is the better rim protector, the C’s center makes up for it with his superior mid-range jumper and passing ability.
The Celtics go 11 deep, bringing their best scorer (Isaiah Thomas), best rebounder (Jared Sullinger) and their four best floor spacers (Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko, Kelly Olynyk and Luigi Datome) off the bench, making for all sorts of matchup possibilities. While the Cavs have a potential double-double (Tristan Thompson), a 3-and-D stalwart (Iman Shumpert), a trio of veteran 3-point shooters (Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and James Jones) and a championship-winning statue of a center (Kendrick Perkins) at their disposal, the reserve tank is the C’s best hope of keeping their foot on the gas pedal.
Have you talked yourself into the Celtics winning this in six yet? No? Well, me neither. Their defense and depth can keep most of the games exciting, and Thomas alone could swing one with his scoring, but let’s be serious. The Cavs have LeBron, and 2008 Paul Pierce isn’t walking through that door to save the C’s.
Celtics CSNNE play-by-play commentator Mike Gorman joined Middays with MFB to discuss his predictions for the C’s upcoming playoff series against the Cavaliers. To hear the interview, go to the MFB audio on demand page.
Gorman believes that the Celtics have the ability to pull off an upset against LeBron James and the Cavs. He has picked the C’s to win the series in six games.
“It’s how you’re playing right now that matters, it’s not what you did before,” Gorman said. “And you could take a pretty substantial sample size of the last 36 games where Celtics have gone 24-12. … They’ve got the fifth-best defense in the league over the last 38 games. They have got, also — this number surprised me when I was doing the research — when Isaiah Thomas is on the floor according to the NBA statistics, they have the second-best offense in the league. Only Golden State has a better offense than the Celtics do when Isaiah Thomas is on the floor.”
Added Gorman: “There are going to be certain keys to this series that goes along right from the very beginning. One to watch for in the first quarter of the first game is the intensity level of both sides, who’s the more energetic teams that’s on the floor. And are the officials going to let Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart play very tough defensively against the guards of Cleveland.”
“Yes, [the Cavaliers] have more talent, but [the Celtics] play as a team,” Gorman said. “The Celtics I think are third or fourth in the last two months in fewest turnovers a game. They take care of the ball, they’re not reckless. … I think one of the keys to this game when you watch it on Sunday is the Celtics need to make Cleveland have six, seven, eight touches per offensive possession. You can’t have somebody get a rebound, fire it to LeBron, LeBron goes the length of the court and gets a dunk or Kyrie [Irving] gets a kick from LeBron and gets a 3 off one pass. You’ve got to make them play offensively and move the ball around. If the Celtics can do that, I think they can keep this game well within reach.”
With the end of the regular season, WEEI.com’s Celtics writers — Julian Edlow, Sam Packard and Ben Rohrbach — have come together to hand out some team awards. On Saturday we will preview the first-round playoff series between the Celtics and Cavaliers.
Brad Stevens surprised many around the league by guiding the Celtics to the playoffs. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Julian Edlow: It sounds so corny to make a coach the MVP, but it’s the truth. Brad Stevens is the Celtics‘ MVP. What he’s done, going from a revolving door of players into a tight-knit team that’s hotter than anyone in the East, is truly remarkable. Each and every one of Stevens’ guys love playing for him, and it shows out on the court.
Sam Packard: I was leaning toward Stevens, too, for all the reasons Julian mentioned, but for variety’s sake I will take a player. I think Avery Bradley is the MVP this season. In addition to his great defense, Bradley has been the Celtics‘ most consistent scorer. If he could just extend his range out about three feet, he would be an All-Star.
Ben Rohrbach:Brad Stevens. When the front office trades your team’s top scorer (Jeff Green) and top playmaker (Rajon Rondo), injuries claim your last three first-round picks for at least 15 games apiece (Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart), and you’re operating at various stretches of the season with Avery Bradley, Brandon Bass, Evan Turner and even Tayshaun Prince as your best player, it’s probably safe to say your coaching played an important role in your team winning 40 games.
JE: The playoffs are as big of a surprise as we could have imagined. No one saw this coming when the C’s were 16-30 just 2 1/2 months ago. Fast forward to the postseason and Boston is 40-42 — finishing up at 24-12 since Feb. 2. And for those who would consider changing the playoff format, and I’m not against this, the Celtics still would be in with the 16th-best record in the league. But if the playoffs were too broad of an answer, getting Isaiah Thomas is a big surprise, too. He’s a huge reason that they are where they are.
SP: Who knew Evan Turner could be this good? No matter what he does, he is going to be the most hated Celtic on Twitter, but I have been really impressed by his ability to run the offense this year. His 2.5 turnovers a game are annoying, but the guy needs the ball in his hands to make plays, and he does exactly that. This year he joined Larry Bird, Antoine Walker, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo as the only Celtics to have three triple-doubles in a season.
BR: Turner. Anybody who thought a guy who ranked 205th in assist-to-turnover ratio last season would essentially be running the point as arguably the most important player for a playoff team this year is kidding themselves.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
JE: It may sound stupid, but the MIP is Jae Crowder. Despite not being on the roster at the start of the season, Crowder was only averaging 10 minutes and three points per game in Dallas this season. Look at what he has become during his time in Boston. Crowder is now being looked at as one of the keys to stopping LeBron if the Celtics are to have any chance in the playoffs. Jae has come a long way in a short period of time.
SP: James Young! Well that’s obviously not the case, since he is my runner up for the next category. I am going to have to agree with Julian. Crowder evolved from a throwaway in the Rondo deal to a middle class man’s Draymond Green. (Notice I didn’t say poor man’s, I wouldn’t do Bae like that.) His ability to defend multiple positions is a perfect fit for a Brad Stevens-coached team, while his effort and intensity are unmatched.
BR: Tyler Zeller. In terms of advanced metrics, he submitted the best player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage, defensive rebounding rate, assist rate, usage rate, win shares and value over replacement player — by a significant margin. And, remember, the Celtics acquired him for literally nothing.
JE: Jared Sullinger disappointed us again. I really like Sully as a player. I feel like he has star potential, even on a contender. But until he gets in shape and shows he can maintain his health — and the two are VERY related — Sullinger is going to continue to just show flashes of what he could be if he committed himself to greatness.
SP: Do Rajon Rondo or Jeff Green qualify? Both were surly and really didn’t make big contributions to the squad. Sully is disappointing, but for a good portion of the season he was the team’s best player. Picking on the fat guy also seems like low-hanging fruit, something that would benefit the portly power forward.
BR: Sullinger. After he averaged 13.3 points and 8.1 rebounds last season and spent the summer as the center of most rumored Kevin Love trade packages, there was hope he would make a leap in his third season. Instead, he averaged 13.3 points and 7.6 boards before losing his starting role to a foot injury Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge blamed on his conditioning. Meanwhile, the Celtics didn’t skip a beat without Sullinger down the stretch.
BEST GAME MOMENT
JE: The buzzer-beaters. I’ll give you three: Evan Turner and Tyler Zeller’s game-winners at home against the Hawks and Jazz were electric, and Marcus Smart’s in Toronto may have saved the season. What did they all have in common? They came on plays called coming out of a timeout by Brad Stevens.
SP: I will go with another Stevens ATO play. This one didn’t come at the buzzer but was still damn impressive. Marcus Smart hitting an and-one in the final minute of the Memphis game sticks out to me. The Celtics really had no business even being in that game, and this was the play that put them ahead for good. Also, it featured Marcus Smart going to the rim, which is something I have yearned for all season.
BR: Turner’s game-winner against the Blazers. Sullinger almost turned the ball over before falling on the loose ball and finding Turner for a 3 that snapped a 24-game road losing streak to Western Conference foes. It was as wild and unpredictable as the entire season and ignited a 27-16 finish to 2014-15.
BEST DANNY AINGE MOVE
JE: Follow along here. In July Ainge trades the trade exception from the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett deal in a three-way trade for Tyler Zeller, Marcus Thornton and a first-round pick. In February he trades that pick along with Thornton to the Suns for Isaiah Thomas. So when you think about all those picks from the Nets trade, don’t forget to tack on Zeller and Thomas to the payout.
SP: The Paul Pierce TPE could also have been my selection for MVP, but I think the Rondo deal has to be highlighted. Ainge picked up one future star in Jae Crowder (maybe a small exaggeration), and Brandan Wright, who subsequently was turned into two second-round picks. More importantly, Rondo’s value continues to drop, as he probably has never recovered from his torn ACL. Although Ainge probably could have gotten more for Rondo a year earlier, the fact that he was able to get something of value in return was impressive.
BR: The Paul Pierce trade exception. Ainge turned a $10.3 million TPE into Zeller and two pieces — Marcus Thornton and Cleveland’s 2016 first-round pick — he later used to acquire Isaiah Thomas. A starting center and a Sixth Man of the Year contender for nothing more than a placeholder. Not bad.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge joined the Dennis & Callahan show on Friday morning to talk about the C’s upcoming playoff series against the Cavaliers and what he sees from his team. To hear the interview, go to the Dennis & Callahan audio on demand page.
Earlier this week, Mike Gorman of Comcast SportsNet New England gave his prediction for the first round of the postseason. He said the series would last six games, but unlike most others, Gorman said that it would be the Celtics who advance to the conference semifinals, not LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
When asked about the prediction, Ainge noted that the Cavs certainly have the advantage but that there are aspects of the game the C’s can focus on to stop them as best as possible.
“We need to make a high percentage of our 3’s in order to win this series,” he said. “Not so many turnovers, which is obvious, preventing them from getting open-court baskets. I think if we give them a lot of open-court baskets, either off the long rebounds or breakouts off steals, we have no chance of stopping them. They’re tough enough to stop them at half court let alone in the open court, where they have the big advantage.
“But listen,” Ainge added, “they’re obviously a star-studded team. They have a lot of different options, and I think that in a series like this, they just have a much greater room for error than we do. And we just have to play at our best, we need five, six guys playing the best basketball they’ve played, and our guys are capable of it. It’s a tough, tough mountain to climb, but it’s fun. It’s a fun opportunity for us.”
After dealing Rajon Rondo and finding themselves 11 games under .500 at the trade deadline, the Celtics weren’t expected to make the playoffs. Ainge himself said it was a bit of a long shot. However, he worked to acquire Isaiah Thomas, and while he said he knew the 5-foot-9 guard would make the team better, Ainge didn’t know he would make as much of a difference as he had.
In addition to Thomas, Ainge said that many guys have stepped up over the second half of the season, citing players like Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Evan Turner.
And the players aren’t the only ones making a difference on this C’s team that has experienced a major turnaround. Brad Stevens was named was named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for April on Thursday and Ainge expressed how pleased he is with his second-year coach.
“We went after him and him only and we gave him a six-year contract, which I think is unprecedented in the NBA for a head coach, and I think that pretty much tells that we knew we were getting somebody special, and I have not been disappointed at all,” he said. “To say he’s better than I even thought, I thought he was pretty good and I think that his transition has been better from a coaching standpoint, and I think he still will be better next year and the year after and the year after that. I think he’s such a smart guy and a hard worker that he’s just going to continue to become better as a coach, but he’s a very good coach right now and I couldn’t be any happier with Brad.”
While many teams win championships with a star-studded roster, Ainge pointed out that “there is no blueprint,” that there are many different ways for teams to win. Stars give you a large advantage, but they’re not the be-all, end-all.
“I think it’s encouraging to see what happened last year with San Antonio,” he said. “Even though they still had stars, they were aged stars that weren’t near the impact they were in the prime of their careers. We see a team like Atlanta this year. It will be interesting to see how they perform in the playoffs.”
Ainge also threw out a few players that he classified as transcendent talents, including Steph Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis. When asked if he ever thought Rondo could might be in that category, Ainge replied, “No.”
“I saw him have games that were very, very special,” he said, “but I wouldn’t classify him as transcendent, but he was a very, very good player.”
Following are more highlights from the conversation. For more Celtics news, visit the team page at weei.com/celtics.
On putting themselves in a position to get star players: “What we have is opportunities and we have to, like when, for example, when James Harden was a player that I always like coming out of college and throughout his NBA career. When James Harden became available because of where our team was with [Kevin Garnett], Paul [Pierce], Ray [Allen] and so forth, we didn’t have the assets to go get James Harden, we weren’t in the game. When we were able to get KG and Ray, we had it, we were in the game. Now there was no guarantee that we were going to get them. We were one of five teams that were sort of in the hunt. …
“You have to put yourself in that position to be in the game when those star players become available, but there’s no guarantee you’re going to get them, so same thing with the draft. You put yourself in position to get draft picks but even if you get high draft picks, there’s no guarantee there’s going to be transcendent players in those picks. …
“That’s why it’s important for developing our young players and controlling what we can control, which is winning games I think is important because it sheds a better light on the players we currently have that might become more attractive. If we’re winning 25 games or 20 games, nobody really respects your team or your players.”
Stevens guided the C’s to a 7-1 record, a perfect 4-0 on the road, and Boston finished the season on a six-game win streak. Not for nothing, too, as five of those teams are playoff bound. The Celtics also managed a plus-8.8 points-per-game differential during April as well.
With the run Boston has gone on, it has been able to slide into the seventh seed in the playoffs, punching its ticket to a first-round matchup with the second-seeded Cavaliers.
“The total buy-in is unbelievable,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey told SB Nation regarding how Stevens’ team responds to him. “They’ve got a young team. It’s almost like a college team playing hard, running through a wall and they’re relentless. Brad has them playing at a high level on both ends of the floor. If you don’t match their intensity you’re in trouble. They remind me a lot of us last year. No agendas, nothing but let’s go out and play hard and let’s win. That’s how they’re playing now and that’s how I think the game should be played.”
The NBA’s Western Conference Coach of the Month is familiar to Boston as well. Doc Rivers, the former C’s bench boss, was able to lead his Clippers to the only perfect record in April, going 7-0 and scoring 108.6 ppg while allowing 97.4 ppg in that time.