By this point there are very few mysteries left for the Celtics in their series with the Cavaliers.
They want to pound the ball to Kevin Garnett in the post when they’re in the halfcourt and push the pace with Rajon Rondo off misses. Defense and rebounding are the keys for the Celtics and when they hold the Cavs to less than 10 second-chance points they have won each and every time.
It’s simple, really, for the Celtics. They know what they have to do and it’s a matter of execution. In this they have the advantage on their opponent who are in the midst of a swirling maelstrom of criticism, doubt and hysteria.
From a big-picture NBA standpoint, Game 6 is all about the Cavs and LeBron James. He has found himself under the critical lens for really the first time in his career and everyone not associated with the Green wants to know: How will he react?
The eyes of the basketball world are on this game tonight and they are not watching the Celtics. That’s fine with them and they have constructed an oblivious bubble around themselves.
This was Ray Allen after Game 5 when Cleveland-area reporters were looking for insight into the Cavs epic collapse. “I was focused more on our triumphs,” he said simply.
But there is danger lurking for the Celtics who have said repeatedly, and a little too strongly, that they don’t want any part of going back to Cleveland for a Game 7.
“It’s great after the fact to talk about how we got two games where we played really well,” Allen said. “It’s like fool’s gold. You got to go into [Game 6], you have to be paranoid.”
Paranoia is everywhere in this series and for the moment the Celtics hold the psychological advantage. That’s nice, but it’s nowhere near as important as the advantage they have shown on the floor throughout the majority of this series.
All eyes will be on the Cavs, but for the Celtics, the time is now to finish this thing.
“We have one home game left in this series,” Doc Rivers said. “We haven’t done anything. We know we’re going to get Cleveland’s best shot. LeBron’s going to play an amazing game and we have to be ready to absorb that and still win the game.”
Here’s what to watch for tonight:
RAJON RONDO, THE HUMAN MISMATCH
We know that Mo Williams can’t guard Rajon Rondo. We also know that Daniel Gibson can’t either. Anthony Parker has been OK in spots, but it was Parker who was on the receiving end of Rondo’s Game 4 performance for the ages.
The Cavs are desperate and desperation may force them into having James guard Rondo, but as the Celtics showed in Game 5, they are not a one-man team. It’s not about who guards Rondo for the Celtics, it’s about where the mismatches are and exploiting them.
“We just need to play our team game, continue moving the ball and trust that we’re going to get you the ball,” Rivers said. “When we do get you the ball, be aggressive.”
That was the message to Paul Pierce who was more far more aggressive offensively in Game 5 than he has been at any point since the opening game of the series. Rivers put Pierce in better positions to get himself started in Game 5 and then he put it on the big men to be smarter about setting their screens in the pick and roll.
Once again, it’s all about the mismatches. “Our bigs did a better job of picking and choosing who went instead of just doing it all the time,” Rivers said.
What that translates to is this: When Shaquille O’Neal and Antwan Jamison are one on the floor, that’s who the Celtics want defending the high pick and roll.
But all of this ultimately comes down to Rondo. He is the one who makes the defenses react and the one who keeps the Cavs on their heels. However they choose to defend him, the Celtics now believe that they have an effective counter for every scenario.
KEVIN GARNETT, THIS IS YOUR MOMENT
Assuming that this won’t be a blowout – a dangerous assumption to have in this series – the Celtics have what they believe is a can’t miss option in their halfcourt offense: Kevin Garnett on the left block against Jamison.
“There’s not enough shots,” Rivers said. “He can’t take enough shots in this series. Whether they’re going in or not, we don’t care. We just want you down there.”
As we all know by now, it is not Garnett’s forte to be the focal point of the offense. That’s neither good nor bad, it just is.
“He fights his own self because people don’t get that,” Rivers said after Game 1. “They criticize him for being unselfish, which is the craziest thing on earth, but that is who he is.”
Rivers has pushed Garnett throughout the series to be more “selfish” with his offense. He can score all night against Jamison on the block and he has done it throughout the series. Rivers wants Garnett to take at least 20 shots, which is a huge number for Garnett, but that’s what the situation calls for.
Garnett’s greatness throughout his career has been defined by his defensive presence, his effort and his multi-faceted, and yes unselfish, offensive game. He has rarely had to be great in the traditional sense of points and shots and that’s part of what has made him one of the more unique players in the game’s history.
Garnett, frankly, owes no explanation or apology for the way he’s played the game throughout his career. But tonight, the Celtics need him to be that player that people have wanted him to be forever.
WHAT WILL WE SEE FROM LEBRON JAMES?
He took 14 shots in Game 5 and 11 of them were jump shots. He was passive when the moment called for him to be aggressive and seemed distant, almost out of it, at times.
There are theories everywhere for LeBron’s beyond-strange play in Game 5 and none of them are good. His elbow is hurting. He’s got one foot in New York already. He has given up on his team, which has hardly risen to the occasion in his time of need.
There’s also the notion that the Celtics simply played great defense, which no one outside of Boston really wants to hear.
“We focused on him not getting to the basket,” Rivers said. “My gosh, for three games he basically had a highway to the basket. Our thought was, we’ve got to get bodies in front of him. We obviously didn’t want to foul him, but we had given up too many layups and it gives his team too much juice when he gets there. LeBron is a great player and he missed some shots that he normally makes. He had five to nine shots, if we give them those [in game 6] he’s going to make those. We can’t live on all the things we did yesterday.”
Allowing for the fact that the Celtics did play great defense in Game 5, there’s no denying that James’ play was, well, odd. It didn’t jibe with what we think we know about him and his determination in big games. It made no sense, really.
James may not have a ring, but he has carried lesser teams beyond their capabilities during his career. Something wasn’t right for him and his team in Game 5. Credit the Celtics as much as you want for that, and they deserve it, but something was amiss.
Game 6 will be a defining moment in his still-young career. It would be foolish to think that the Celtics won’t get his best shot tonight. But, will that be enough?
ARE THE CAVS MENTALLY TOUGH ENOUGH?
Beyond James, the vibes are not good from the Cleveland locker room.
There was grumbling after Game 4 when Shaquille O’Neal was left on the bench in the fourth quarter. There was outright bewilderment after Mike Brown made strange, even panic-level, substitutions like playing Zydrunas Ilgauskus over J.J. Hickson and reaching for Gibson who hasn’t played much since March.
The Cavs owner took time to call ace Plain Dealer reporter Brian Windhorst and express his outrage over Game 5, and there is the continuing odd disassociation between star player and coach. James has been placid when Brown has been angry and he has expressed his displeasure in a passive-aggressive manner with some of his rotations.
The oddest moment of a surreal night came not on the court, but in the stands where Kentucky coach, and LeBron friend, John Calipari just happened to be sitting courtside. What kind of message was that sending? (With LeBron, everything is transmitted to the masses in some kind of code.)
There is a very real question of trust for the Cavs and they seem to have none of it right now. Will Mo Williams make a jump shot? Can Shaq defend the pick and roll? Will anyone besides Anderson Varejao stand up and fight with James?
This is no way to go into an elimination game that may very well blow up the franchise, but that’s the Cavs reality and that’s why everyone who has even a passing interest in the NBA will be watching tonight.
The Celtics, though, simply do not care. “I’m not worried about what’s going on with them,” Kendrick Perkins said.
The Cavs blew themselves up in the playoffs last season and unless they dramatically reverse course, Game 6 could see the end of basketball in Cleveland as we know it. Those are the stakes. Can they handle it?
TAKE A MOMENT TO ACKNOWLEDGE DOC
It’s funny how things can change. This hasn’t been the easiest season for Doc Rivers. He presided over a veteran team that didn’t seem to care very much about their season and for the longest time, he was the one solitary voice of support.
It had to be hard for him to continue to insist that everything was under control when things clearly were not right on the court. But Rivers held steady to his plan of getting his team healthy for the playoffs beyond all over considerations, like getting the third seed.
He has pushed almost all the right buttons throughout the playoffs, from establishing the second unit to calling timeouts at exactly the right moment to exploiting mismatches against the Heat and Cavs. He has his team peaking at just the right time, and there aren’t many people who thought that they had this in them.
“We knew who we were,” Rivers said. “We knew our identity. We started off the season with it and then we lost our way.”
They have a chance tonight to right all the wrongs that they inflicted on the basketball-watching people of Boston this season and if they do Rivers deserves an awful lot of credit. If the Celtics can finish things off, this series will go down as his finest coaching moment to date.