Sure, the Cavaliers had the best regular-season record in the NBA this year (61-21). Sure they have the Most Valuable Player in LeBron James. They added Shaquille O'Neal after their embarrassing playoff loss to the Magic last year. GM Danny Ferry beefed up his roster again with the midseason acquisition of Antawn Jamison. Anderson Varejao is a handful for any opponent.
But the old Celtics match up well with the All-Star Cavaliers. The Celts don't fear the Cavs. And deep down, the Cavaliers know the Celtics can beat them.
The C's and Cavs split four games during the regular season. The Celtics won the season-opener at Quicken Loans Arena back in October. Earlier this month, the Green beat Cleveland in Boston, 117-113. The Cavs beat the Celts twice, including an 108-88 rout at the Boston Garden in February.
Two years ago, the Celtics and Cavaliers met in epic seven-game playoff match which proved to be Boston's toughest test en route to Banner No. 17. The finale at the Garden featured a memorable mano-a-mano featuring James (45 points) and Paul Pierce (41). It kindled memories of the Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins shootout in 1988.
I'm not bold enough to predict three more rounds of playoff victories for this Boston team, but I like the Celts against the heavily favored Cavs.
"I don't think there's a team that our players feel we can't beat,'' said Boston GM Danny Ainge.
The Celtics have the same starting five that won the championship two years ago. OK -- Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen are not better than they were two years ago, but Rajon Rando is a much better player than he was in 2008, and Kendrick Perkins is two years stronger. Glen "Big Baby" Davis contributes much more than he did two years ago and the Celtics have added veteran snipers Michael Finley and Rasheed Wallace.
As much as it hurts to say this, the mercurial 'Sheed might be the difference against the Cavs. He's certainly rested. Wallace started the season out of shape and was content to launch threes throughout the regular season. He was the Secretary of Energy Conservation. He's been claiming he's a big-game playoff guy. We haven't seen much of 'Sheed during the Miami series, but the Heat have been so bad, it's hard to notice any Celtics' shortcomings. Maybe 'Sheed will finally shine at the Q.[snip]
But the Celtics know they can beat LeBron. And they know they can win in Cleveland (see Oct. 27, 2009). They also know that the Cavaliers are running with baby grands on their backs.
Couple things here. First (just to get this out of the way), citing Boston's first win of the season as proof that the Celtics can win in Cleveland is, at best, dubious and, at worst, willfully stupid. In the 2008 playoffs, the Cavs margin of victory in Cleveland were 24, 11 and 6 while the Celtics won in Boston by margins of 4, 16, 7 and 5 (with LeBron playing like ass in those first two). Do the Celtics really 'know' they can win in Cleveland?
But to cite the improvement of the Celtics while simply glossing over Cleveland's upgrades is kinda weak (and really, Michael Finley and Rasheed Wallace count as improvements?). Here's the Cavaliers' starting five in that Game 7 which Shaughnessy references: Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, LeBron James, Ben Wallace and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. That's a Cavs team that won a whopping 45 games during the regular season. This year's squad is a wee bit different, eh?
While it's true some Celtics have improved, since the Pierce-LeBron 'duel' (where P.J. Brown was the best player over the last 4 minutes), the Cavs have added Mo Williams, Shaq, Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon and J.J. Hickson. I know national writers think that you just can pair any four scrubs with LeBron and get a playoff team, but these additions make a ton of difference. You don't win 60 games in back-to-back season without having some talent on the roster.
The Celtics couldn't be a 45 win Cavs team at The Q back when KG was healthy and they had James Posey to defend Bron-Bron. Now Rasheed Wallace is going to be the difference? The same 'Sheed that quit on the Pistons when they got swept by Cleveland last season? Really? I don't buy it.
Shaughnessy is more or less being contrarian just to be contrarian (and/or a homer). And that's fine. Do what you know. He does make the point that the Cavs are playing with a ton of pressure. Considering they're carrying 40 years of Cleveland sports misery on their shoulders along with the fact that this could be LeBron's last season in Cleveland, I don't disagree. (And by the way, props to ABC for playing the 'Cleveland sports tragedy' montage during a 20 point blowout. God forbid we're allowed to enjoy a victory and feel good about ourselves).
But that's his only point. Sure, the Cavs have the best player, a better team and home court advantage... but Cleveland hasn't won a title in 40 years.
Man, that's gonna be a fun series.
(and while I'm allowed to look ahead, the Cavs should be focused on the Bulls. End it Tuesday, don't drag this out).