When last we left this series, the Celtics were embarrassing the Cleveland Cavaliers on their home court on the same night LeBron James was being awarded his second MVP.
Over the last three days we have had reports of injuries, a $25,000 fine for Danny Ainge pulling an M.L. Carr in the stands and a considerable change in the way the Celtics are perceived around the league. (To say nothing of all the mental toughness questions the Cavs are now enduring).
But as Game 3 tips off Friday night at the Garden, very little has changed for the Celtics. They showed in Game 1 that they could play with the Cavs, if not finish them off, and they showed in Game 2 that they are more than capable of taking the fight to them.
An angry Mike Brown told the press after Game 2 that he would find out what his team was made of Friday night and the Celtics are expecting nothing less than their best shot.
“War,” Doc Rivers said after the team’s practice Thursday. “It’s going to be a tough game. We know LeBron’s going to be better. Their whole team is going to be better. We have to be better. We have to attack more. We can’t turn the ball over like we’ve done.”
All the Celtics did with their Game 2 win was grab homecourt advantage, which may only be as temporary as the next game. They may have planted a little fear into the hearts of Ohioans, but there are still miles to go before this race is finished.
As we head into what may be the pivotal game of the series, here are five things to watch for:
WILL LEBRON GUARD RAJON RONDO?
The Celtics have been expecting this from the moment they finished off the Heat, but so far it hasn’t happened. Rajon Rondo has seen Mo Williams, Delonte West, Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon guarding him, but so far, no LeBron.
“We have to anticipate that they’re going to put LeBron on Rondo,” Rivers said. “That’s the assumption on our end.”
Whether it’s because of his elbow, and reports out of Cleveland indicated that James did not have another MRI, or a schematic preference, Brown has held back on trying to cool off Rondo with James.
So far it hasn’t mattered who is guarding Rondo. He tore up Williams in the first half of Game 1 and when he found hulking defenders waiting for him in the paint in Game 2, he tied his own franchise record for playoff assists with 19 (tied also with Bob Cousy).
Rondo said between games that he actually doesn’t worry about who’s guarding him. His eyes are always on the second wave of defenders. Perhaps the bigger concern for Rondo, and Rivers, is the amount of minutes he’s been playing.
Rondo has been on the court for 87 of a possible 96 minutes and played the first three quarters of Game 2 without a break before sitting for a grand total of three minutes in the fourth quarter. The Celtics are +19 when Rondo is in the game and -9 when he’s not. Tony Allen has replaced him, although he has had ballhandling help from Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.
“I’m OK with Tony,” Rivers said. “I don’t know the answer with Rondo. I don’t like the minutes, but as you saw in the fourth quarter [of Game 2] we took him for two minutes and it changed quickly. Our plan was to take him out in the first half, but then Paul got in foul trouble. I told him at that point, I’m sorry.”
Rondo has expressed no concern with his workload. “His ego tells him,” Rivers said. “He wants to play.” But Rondo has also been bounced around quite a bit in this series, which is the inevitable price he has to pay for attacking the basket.
Rondo has been the best player for the Celtics in the playoffs, and arguably for the whole season. If he winds up opposite James, he’ll get a chance to go up against the best player in the league. If he wins that battle, Brown may not have any trump cards left to play.
THE BATTLE IS UP FRONT
Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins practiced Thursday and announced themselves ready to play. Anderson Varejao was treated for back spasms in Cleveland and should also be ready for Game 3. Assuming the injuries are not a factor, this is the matchup the Celtics have to win, both offensively and defensively.
They are aggressively pushing Garnett to be an offensive force in the post against Antwan Jamison and he responded by taking 41 shots in the two games. Rivers wants more.
“I told him 20 [shots] is not enough,” Rivers said. “We want 25. He’s so pass conscious that even today in practice today guys are going, ‘Shoot the ball.’”
Garnett has slowly but surely found his offensive games in the playoffs. He still has his moments, like when he started Game 2 shooting 2-for-9, where he seems either rushed or tentative, but the Celtics believe that he is trusting his body again.
If he can get started and if Jamison can’t stop him, the Celtics would welcome a double team because that would leave daylight for Pierce, Allen or Rondo.
On the defensive end, Rivers is asking his big men to play their opponents one-on-one without help. That is Perkins’ forte and he has made Shaquille O’Neal look old at times. Yet Brown seems intent on trying to establish Shaq in the post.
“He’s done great,” Rivers said. “It’s no piece of cake. Shaq is a bear. He’s tough. They’re going to him more. They’re really trying to establish him down low. He’s a force. It’s tough because you don’t want to commit a double team because that opens up everything. They know that so they’re really trying to pound him. Perk and [Glen Davis] are standing in there and taking the fire. That’s a lot of brute force on top of you.”
Speaking of the big men…
TIME FOR AN ENCORE, SHEED
The 17 points were nice, a revelation really, but what the Celtics need from Rasheed Wallace is a concentrated effort on the defensive end and the boards. They need it from Davis too.
“The shooting and scoring is what everyone saw, but for us, it’s more of the defense,” Rivers said. “We have to have a sustained defensive effort at the 4 and 5 spots for 48 minutes. It’s not just Rasheed. It’s everybody. Those two positions are really important for us. With LeBron and their guards on the floor those are the two positions we can’t help the entire game. We need those two [matchups] to be great. All game.”
Garnett has handled Jamison reasonably well. Perkins has done his job against O’Neal, but if there is a major concern for the Celtics up front it’s the play of the Cavaliers bench.
Varejao has had moments when he’s controlled the backboards, but the Celtics have done a better job of limiting those moments. J.J. Hickson could also see some more time and he is a solid offensive threat.
Make no mistake: The scoring from Wallace was an unexpected bonus, but they need him to continue to tighten up on the defensive end. For his part, Davis had a much better Game 2 as he avoided the early foul trouble that plagued him in Game 1.
He seems to be settling into his role as the Celtics energy guy off the bench and that has to continue for them to be successful.
CLEANING UP THE FOULS AND TURNOVERS
By now almost everyone knows the stats. The Celtics have committed 56 personal fouls in two games, while the Cavs have been called for 33. The Celtics have shots 30 fewer free throws than Cleveland, although in an underplayed storyline the Cavs are shooting 68 percent and are only +15 at the line.
Rivers has subtly made the point that the Celtics need to get to the line more, and they have to be able to play the Cavaliers without fouling.
“We’re going to play the way we play and we’re not going to change the way we play,” Rivers said. “We have to do a better job of doing it without fouling. And we have to do a better job, somehow, of drawing some fouls on them. We have to be more aggressive offensively. We have to attack more. It is something we want, as well as we played, the low free throw attempts for us, we have to get to that line more.”
Yes, Rivers is looking for more calls, but he also wants his team to continue attacking the rim the way Rondo did in Game 1. The cracks are there in the Cleveland defense for them to exploit, but it’s not easy. They’re going to get hit.
Be that as it may, the Celtics can control how well they take care of the ball and it’s been a season-long problem. They’ve turned it over 35 times in the two games and that has led to 46 points for Cleveland.
“They are a lot like Miami where if you turn the ball over, you should just give them two points because that means LeBron’s in the open court by himself,” Rivers said. “The type of turnovers that we’ve had are bad. We’ve had open court turnovers, cross-court turnovers. We can’t have those in this series.”
RAY ALLEN’S SUBTLE VALUE
For the last two seasons, advanced metrics have shown us that when Ray Allen is on the court, the Celtics are a better team. In fact, according to various adjusted +/- formulas, Allen is nothing less than a genuine superstar. There are various rationales to support that conclusion.
He’s really good for one. His defense isn’t as bad as people think it is, for another. Perhaps the most realistic reason is actually the most obvious: Allen’s shooting can’t be ignored.
After a sub-par Game 1, Allen came alive with a team-high 22 points in the second game. But in both games he was a factor.
“Even when he’s not making shots we appreciate him because there’s somebody standing next to Ray all the time,” Rivers said. “One of the reasons, besides Rondo just being good, the more Rondo drives on Ray’s side, it’s probably going to be open because they’re not leaving Ray.”
Allen has also found himself in the unlikely position of having to guard James at times and he’s actually been quite effective.
“He was good,” Rivers said. “He was very good. Ray was so simple. He kept within the team’s confines defensively.”
“By any means necessary,” Allen joked. “When I’m guarding Lebron or I’m guarding [Dwyane] Wade I feel good about myself because I feel like I’m containing him. But I know what’s happening behind me is I got three or four guys waiting. It takes a team, not just one guy.”
It’s not as if the Celtics want to put him in that position either, but Pierce has run into foul trouble in each of the first two games and rather than take him out, Rivers has simply swapped in Allen to leave them both on the floor.
“We have no choice,” Rivers said. “It’s two games in a row now Paul comes out with three fouls to start the half. So we go into the ‘stretch foul rule. Basically, if Ray picks up a foul, Paul guards him, and if Paul picks up a foul, Ray guards him. You can stretch both of their fouls that way. LeBron’s tough. We don’t want Ray on him too much because his shooting is such a factor.”
It always comes back to his shot in one way or another for Allen, but the points he puts on the scoreboard don’t tell the whole story.