Win or go home for Cavs, Celtics
For one of the league's brightest stars, Sunday will mark the end of the season. Until that time comes at around 6 p.m. ET, though, we can all enjoy one final battle between Kevin Garnett and LeBron James for the right the play the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals Tuesday. Yes, the previous six games were relatively ugly, but Sunday's Game 7 carries with it the apprehension of sudden death and the tensions grown from two teams who have seen far too much of each other over the last two weeks. What factors will determine the outcome. Let's take a look.
No player in the East has the ability to bend a game to his talents like LeBron. Although his scoring has picked up as the series has progressed, James has scuffled most of this series. That won't suffice in Boston, where the Cavs will need him to hit a few from mid-range to force the Celtics defense to expand on James. Should that be the case, James could put on a show as he blows by defenders and dishes to his bigs in the paint. Of course, as had been well-documented, that hasn't been the case, and if the Celtics can continue to keep LeBron on the perimeter, they'll limit his damage largely to the foul line, where he has been sketchy. Further, by making LeBron a jump-shooter, Boston will be able to move Cleveland's post players out of the middle for the seemingly endless series of pick-and-rolls the Cavs will attempt instead of allowing them to flash into the lane for easy hoops courtesy of LeBron.
If Ray Allen had shown up for more than, say, a quarter or three of this series, we wouldn't even be having this conversation about Game 7. Part of it is Cleveland's defense; part of it could be the legal drama his family has found itself in; part of it could be ... age? While next season will go a long way toward answering those last two possibilities, for Sunday, if Allen can somehow get going -- even to a modest degree -- the Celtics will cruise. The recipe isn't quite as easy for the Cavs, where a hot hand by Wally Szczerbiak is no guarantee for success. But if he or Delonte West can prove reliable from long range, that could prove fatal to a Celtics D willing to gamble the Cavs won't be reliable from outside. And if the Cavs are cold from distance, they'll hang themselves quickly in an offense that doesn't utilize many alternatives beyond No. 23.
Crash the glass
Basketball can be pretty simple at times: hit shots and you score; miss and you don't. But if you work the boards hard, you can make up for a poor shooting night with second-chance points or by limiting an opponent's scoring opportunities. That has been crucial in a series in which both teams are shooting less than 42 percent. All of those missed shots make for a lot of rebounds. And whichever team has grabbed more of those rebounds through the first six games has won. So it stands to reason that whoever wins the rebounding battle will win the game. Simple, isn't it?
Both teams' bench players have played key roles in securing wins throughout the series. From Sam Cassell's 10 fourth-quarter points in Game 1 to Anderson Varejao's jumpers late in Game 4 to Leon Powe's clutch rebounds in Game 2 to Joe Smith's free throws late in Game 6, almost every game has been secured by someone not in the starting lineup. For the most part, these performances are coming at the tail-end of solid, all-around bench play the previous three quarters. In other words, the better one of these teams' benches play in the first three quarters, the more likely they are to carry that through into the most critical 12 minutes of the game.
Weather the droughts
One need look no further than Game 6 for a clue as to how disjointed these two teams have been on offense. Cleveland ends the first half on a 17-2 run only to give most of it back when the Celtics rip off a 13-0 streak in the third quarter. And Game 6 wasn't an isolated case; these two have been trading big runs all series. The difference has come in how each club has soldiered through their respective dry spells; i.e. keep the lead or keep it relatively close and you're in good shape. Game 7 won't be any different, and while the home crowd should help Boston limit any damage, an extended dry spell for Cleveland likely will spell the end of its season.
The Celtics bolt to an early lead, but behind a LeBron triple-double the Cavs claw themselves back only to run out of steam when their outside shooting fails to connect in the fourth quarter. Celtics 88, Cavaliers 79.