What we learned: Celtics-Cavaliers
Boston would have trouble beating Cleveland in a playoff series
Once-stingy Celtics defense has suddenly become porous
Celtics GM Danny Ainge seeking a trade for an accomplished shooter
CLEVELAND -- With a little over four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and the game no longer in doubt, a demonstrative Kevin Garnett huddled with Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Sam Cassell on the Celtics bench.
The topic: how to get the team out of the worst funk The Big Three have experienced in their 1½ years together.
"We were trying to work things out," Cassell said. "Trying to regroup. We're tired of talking about it. This [(expletive] is getting old now. We're tired of excuses. This is what we have in our locker room right here. Hakeem Olajuwon ain't coming here. We ain't getting him. It is what it is."
One fact is crystal clear after Cleveland's 98-83 drubbing of the Celtics on Friday: this Boston team, as currently constructed, would have trouble beating the Cavaliers in a seven-game series. Sure, when the opening tip goes up, Boston would still have three of the best four players on the floor. But Cleveland is deeper than Boston; it is a better shooting team, more aggressive. Overall, the Cavs are simply better.
Let's break down the five things we learned from the game:
1. Games like these make you realize the MVP race is over.
Be afraid, league. Be very afraid. LeBron James was already the NBA's most unstoppable offensive force (Kobe Bryant is the most skilled player) and he lived up to that billing Friday, scoring 38 inside, outside and in-between points on 13-of-25 shooting. But it was his defense that stood out. Matched up primarily against Pierce, James held him to an uber-quiet 11 points (only seven through three quarters). James was physical when he needed to be and showed impressive lateral movement that left Pierce visibly frustrated. James finished the game with four steals and three blocks.
"Paul Pierce is a tough cover," Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. "The last few games, he has had our number. I thought LeBron did a nice job of continuing to pursue Paul even when he got screen after screen after screen. I thought he just kept pursuing and trying to make Pierce work for his shots."
A lot of lip service has been paid to the impact playing for Team USA has had on James; maybe it's time to stop calling it lip service.
2. The once ironclad Boston defense now has some significant holes.
During Boston's 19-game winning streak, its defense was impregnable. Rotations were crisp and the on-the-ball defense was stifling. But in the last nine games (seven of which have been losses) Boston has forgotten how to play D. The first quarter alone was a Cavalier dunk-a-thon, with Ben Wallace, Anderson Varejao and rookie J.J. Hickson (really) throwing down. For the quarter, Cleveland shot a preposterous 72.2 percent from the field.
On the bright side, the defense is probably the one thing the Celtics can be sure they will get back. Garnett is too much of a presence for Boston to continue to struggle, and Pierce and Allen took pride in raising their defense to a new level last season. The defense will come back...
3. ...but the shooting won't.
On this subject, NBA scouts are unanimous: Boston's second unit is a liability. There are no shooters out there. None. Even Eddie House, who has carved out an eight-year career in the NBA behind his three-point shooting, is connecting on 36.1 percent of his treys, more than three percentage points behind last season and two off his career average.
There are no threats out there. But there are plenty of liabilities. Rajon Rondo (1-of-8 Friday night) is a perimeter nightmare, Tony Allen can't hit the ocean from the Museum of Science and Brian Scalabrine...well, it's Brian Scalabrine.
Sources maintain that Boston GM Danny Ainge has been actively seeking trades, but the simple fact is that Boston doesn't have moveable parts. I've been beating this drum for awhile now, but Ainge's best bet may be to try to pry Jason Kapono from Toronto. Kapono's availability hinges on the Raptors wanting to get from under the final two years and $12.6 million he is owed through 2010-2011. A career 46 percent three-point shooter, Kapono is just the type of outside threat Boston needs to keep teams from packing the paint and locking in on Pierce, Garnett and Allen.
Szczerbiak still has his moments. He scored 15 points against Charlotte on Wednesday and dropped a season-high 16 on Toronto last month. But his moments seem to only come against bad teams; against the cream of the NBA crop, Szczerbiak vanishes. Witness his four points in 16 minutes in the season opener against Boston and his three points in 15 minutes Friday. Szczerbiak's strength is his shooting, and if he isn't making jump shots, he isn't much use. His defense is deplorable (Brown had to reinsert James early in the fourth quarter because Pierce was starting to roll against Wally), and he is almost no threat to attack the basket.
As far as trades go, my lay of the land is this: the Cavs remain interested in dealing Szczerbiak (and his $13 million expiring contract) but are in no rush to make a deal that only makes them marginally better; the chemistry issues are too great. But should an A-List player become available (Vince Carter?), I think Ferry will pull the trigger.
5. As Rondo goes, so do the Celtics.
No player is more essential to Boston's success than Rondo. Nobody. He is the engine that drives the Celtics offense. Poor shooting aside, Rondo wasn't horrible Friday night: he finished with 13 assists and four steals against just two turnovers. But he looks tremendously uncomfortable on the outside, and if he can't get to the hole (as he did effectively in the first four minutes of the third quarter) Boston's offense stagnates.
I don't know if Rondo's confidence is shaken (he says no and everyone I talk to say he is unflappable) or if his left shoulder, which was heavily iced at Friday morning's shoot around, is bothering him. But he has to get his game right for Boston to be successful. It's as simple as that.