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May 13, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Monday's Game

by Bradford Doolittle

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Cavaliers 88, Celtics 77

The 2008 NBA playoffs were meant to be a coronation of the mighty Celtics, a return to glory by the league’s most storied franchise. The marketing of the whole season has been leading up to it--the “Where I Remember Happens” commercial set to Badfinger’s “Day After Day”; the Gatorade commercial set to Mozart’s “Carmina Burana (O Fortuna)”, in which K.G. is dripping orange sweat; the Big Three ESPN spots. As it’s turning out, somewhere in the midst of all of those commercial shoots the Celtics may have forgotten how to play a full game on the road.

The Celtics’ road defense was better on Monday. Cleveland scored 88 points on 80 possessions, for an offensive efficiency of 109.5 points per 100 possessions. The Cavs had posted a 135.5 in their Game Three romp. Still, the Celtics held the Cavs under a point per possession in the two games at Boston and Cleveland’s total was still about eight points above Boston’s regular-season defensive efficiency. The defense was better but still not up to the standard set by Boston during the six previous months.

The Boston defense was solid enough to put the Celtics in position to end its road losing streak midway through the fourth quarter. In a back-and-forth game that saw nine ties and 16 lead changes, Boston pulled to within 76-73 with 6:33 to play on a P.J. Brown jump shot. The Celtics were in midst of a four-minute stretch in which they didn’t allow a single point. On offense, the Celtics were struggling again, but they managed to earn a few decent looks during the Cavs’ drought, looks they couldn’t convert. It had to be torturous for Boston coach Doc Rivers.

After Brown’s jumper, the Celtics rebounded a Wally Szczerbiak miss before Sam Cassell missed a short leaner in transition. Another stop followed, then Kevin Garnett missed a baseline jumper. LeBron James missed on a drive. Paul Pierce got into the lane on transition, spun to get himself open and missed a layup. The Celtics got another stop. Garnett missed a fadeaway over Anderson Varejao on the left block. On two of those Cleveland possessions, the Celtics had to get two stops because of long rebounds chased down by the Cavaliers. Essentially, the Celtics got six straight stops and turned them into four desirable shot opportunities. They missed all four, rebounded none of them, and the score remained frozen at 76-73.

That’s when James got open thanks to a slow defensive rotation off of a screen and hit a three-pointer. That was all the points Cleveland would need. Pierce hit a tough leaner from the foul line; Daniel Gibson followed with a three. Ray Allen missed from beyond the arc; James responded with a thunderous jam that sent the Cleveland fans into a frenzy. The teams played out the string and the Cavs escaped with an 11-point win, the final margin being Cleveland’s biggest lead of the night.

During the first round, we wrote about the Cavs’ remarkable record of closing out close games during the season. With the game nearing crunch time--LeBron time--Boston fumbled away its most crucial possessions of the night. That stretch, however, was merely an extension of the offensive woes that continue to plague the Celtics. Boston shot 40.7 eFG%, going 27-of-70 and hitting just 3-of-14 three-pointers. The Celtics were much more aggressive on the offensive end in the early going and did manage to outscore Cleveland by eight points from the foul line in the game. That aggressiveness seemed to disappear down the stretch. The ball movement definitely went bye-bye. The Celtics were so effective a exploiting a defense’s weak side during the regular season, but that trait has gone dormant at times during the playoffs, especially in Boston’s five straight road losses.

On the other end, the Cavs’ ball movement was again exemplary, with 24 assists on 35 field goals. James had 13 of those dimes, again emerging as the game’s best player despite a shaky shooting performance (7-of-20). The Cleveland bench destroyed Boston’s, with an aggregate game score of 56 to Boston’s 8. Cavalier reserves Joe Smith, Gibson and Varejao combined to score 34 points on 15-of-23 shooting and were all on the floor, along with James and Delonte West, down the stretch. Boston got eight points and six boards from Brown but little else from the bench. Cassell was 0-for-5 from the field.

The Celtics find themselves in an unenviable position entering Game Five. By the time the game tips off back in Boston on Wednesday, the Pistons are likely to be finished with their series against Orlando. They’ll be kicking back, healing up and watching the Celtics and Cavs grinding it out in what has been reduced to a best-of-three series. Monday’s loss is particularly tough for Boston for that reason. On top of that, the Celtics have to shake off their road worries and refocus for the Wednesday’s game. They can’t do anything about the road problems until Friday and it would be human nature to be looking ahead to Game Six. Meanwhile, Cleveland has to feel like it’s in position to steal one in Game Five. Boston’s offense is reeling and Cleveland has evened the series without the sort of offensive outburst from James that seems certain to come at least once before the end of the series.

Boston’s playoff story just hasn’t been going the way the marketing gurus drew it up over on Madison Avenue. There hasn’t been that moment, that display of domination, that has made you say, “Oh, yeah. There’s a team on a championship run.” Boston is 6-5 in the playoffs, 0-5 on the road. Doc Rivers and company better hunker down for Game Five because I have a strong feeling that they are about to get LeBron James’ best shot. If the Celtics can’t hold serve on Wednesday, the tenor of their whole season will be dramatically altered. The script will have to be re-written.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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