NBA Playoffs: Do the Celtics Have the Cavs Figured?

by Hayden Alfano*
Special to iVoryTowerz

Immediately following his team’s hideous 76-72 victory in Game 1 of their second-round National Basketball Association (NBA) playoff series with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers had this to say: “This is gonna be Knicks-Heat, or Knicks-Bulls.”

Rivers was referring to various playoff series during the 1990s, characterized by defensive, physical — at times thuggish — play. And when he did, the Boston fan base took a deep breath and collectively said, “I hope not.”

Those New York Knicks and Miami Heat teams had earned a reputation for “winning ugly.” Lacking the offensive firepower to keep pace with the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls and the rest of the league’s elite, they relied on slowing the game down, grinding out possessions, and getting under the opposition’s skin.

It’s a reasonable tactic and one that’s had a fair amount of success. But it’s completely inappropriate for a 66-win team that was the best in the league the entire year. The strategy is designed to bridge the talent gap; when you’re the most talented team — and despite the presence of LeBron James on Cleveland, Boston is most talented team — that style and pace of play only serves to hurt you.

Game 2, then, promised to be as important and as telling as any in the playoffs. Would Boston — absolutely dominant in four home wins but meek down the stretch in three road losses to Atlanta in the first round — come out and play like they had during the regular season? Or would they play without confidence?

Fortunately for Celtics fans, it was the former. After a slow start last night, Boston’s bench took control in the second quarter, and the starters put the game out of reach out of the locker room to start the third. Final score: Celtics 88, Cavs 73, with Boston holding a 2-0 series lead heading into Game 3 in Cleveland Saturday night (May 10).

More importantly, the Celtics have their swagger back. Few expected the Atlanta series to go even five games, never mind the maximum of seven it took for Boston to dispatch the Hawks. Then came the sluggish Game 1 performance, followed by the somewhat strange language in Rivers’ post-game remarks. They’ve re-established themselves as the favorite to win the Eastern Conference, at least for now, particularly with Detroit’s Chauncey Billups hobbled by an ankle injury.

The thing is, Boston can win a “Knicks-Bulls” series if need be. They were the best defensive team in the league this year, and they’ve been absolutely masterful in shutting down James in the first two games of the Cleveland series. (James, the NBA’s leading scorer at 30 points per game during the regular season, is shooting 19 percent from the floor for the series and has just 33 points total for the two games). Given how well the teams in the Western Conference have been playing offensively — the Los Angeles Lakers still haven’t lost in the playoffs and last night’s game between San Antonio and New Orleans was extraordinarily good offensive basketball — the Celtics might need to keep playing tough defense if they want to win the franchise’s 17th championship.

But not yet.

(Television Viewer’s Guide: The NBA playoffs continue this evening, May 9, with Game 3 of the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz series. Tip-off is 9 p.m. EDT on ESPN.)

*Hayden Alfano is the author of the blog 19'9" which is mostly about college basketball.

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