Category Archives: Playoffs

Cavs Fire Mike Brown After Best Five Year Run in Franchise History

Mike BrownThe Cleveland Cavaliers have officially fired Coach Mike Brown, an action that surprises no one and certainly delights some misguided fans and media members—the same people, I suspect, who called for Bill Belichick’s head a decade and a half ago. Defense wins championships in pro sports but defensive-minded coaches generally do not “win” press conferences, so media members often turn against such coaches and sometimes the media members succeed in convincing the local fan base that writers, broadcasters and fans venting their frustrations on talk radio know more about coaching than actual coaches do.

Belichick learned his craft under a variety of NFL coaches, helped the New York Giants to win two Super Bowls as their defensive coordinator and then “failed” in Cleveland—if you define inheriting a 3-13 team and transforming them into a squad that won a playoff game just four years later as a “failure”—before creating a dynasty in New England; media members were consistently unimpressed by Belichick until the sheer weight of his successes finally muted their short-sighted and superficial critiques of his wardrobe and his dry press conference statements. Remember how the Cleveland media used to mock Belichick’s play-calling? His New England offenses have been shattering records for years but rather than admitting that they misjudged Belichick the media asserted that Belichick had nothing to do with his team’s explosive offense because he was just relying on Charlie Weis’ genius, a theory that has been refuted in light of Weis’ tenure with Notre Dame. As a last resort, these media members like to assert that Belichick “changed” after he left Cleveland but if you listen to the people who actually know football—the players, coaches and executives—they will tell you that Belichick got a raw deal in Cleveland and that he won in New England with the same basic philosophy that he tried to employ in Cleveland. Does any person with a shred of common sense believe that after Belichick was a great coach in New York he inexplicably turned into a fool in Cleveland before suddenly becoming a genius in New England? Belichick is a football lifer and the people inside the game have respected his knowledge for decades, even when the media had a field day mocking Belichick. Did Belichick learn some things along the way? Of course—it would be foolish to do otherwise—but Belichick’s core football values have been the same for a long time.

Brown’s resume is very similar to Belichick’s: Brown learned his craft under a variety of NBA coaches, he helped the Spurs win an NBA championship (though Brown’s role on that coaching staff was not as prominent as Belichick’s role with the Giants) and then he “failed” in Cleveland—if you define being the most successful head coach (in both the regular season and the playoffs) in franchise history as a “failure.” Media members repeatedly insist that Brown does not know how to coach offense, even though the Cavs ranked third in the NBA in field goal percentage (.485) and ninth in the NBA in scoring (102.1 ppg) in 2009-10; in 2004-05–the season before Brown arrived in Cleveland–the Cavs ranked 15th in field goal percentage and 17th in scoring. It is true that the Cavs have upgraded their roster during that time frame but it is wrong to ignore the fact that the Cavs became an efficient and productive team offensively under Brown’s watch. The self-proclaimed “experts” in Cleveland liked to credit former assistant coach John Kuester with anything that the Cavs did right offensively but in Kuester’s final season with the team (2008-09) the Cavs ranked sixth in field goal percentage and 13th in scoring, so the above rankings show that the Cavs continued to progress offensively even after Kuester departed to become Detroit’s head coach. By the way, Detroit fell from 39-43 to 27-55 under Kuester in 2009-10 and the Pistons ranked worse in both scoring (29th, down from 28th) and field goal percentage (27th, down from 16th). That is not to say that Kuester is wholly—or even mostly—to blame for Detroit’s problems; the point is that some members of the Cleveland media portrayed Kuester as an offensive guru but that has yet to be proven to be true.

When Brown came to Cleveland five years ago, the Cavs had absolutely no history of sustained playoff success nor did the franchise have the right culture to reasonably expect to attain that status. Brown pledged to make the Cavs a defensive-minded team and he was true to his word: in 2004-05, the Cavs ranked 11th in points allowed, 14th in point differential and 18th in defensive field goal percentage; by 2006-07, the Cavs ranked in the top eight in all three categories, in 2008-09 the Cavs ranked first, first and second respectively in those categories and this season the Cavs ranked fifth, second and fourth. Brown not only led the Cavs to the best record in the league the past two years—the first coach to achieve this since Phil Jackson did it with the Jordan-Pippen Bulls in 1996 and 1997—but the Cavs won more than 60 games in both of those seasons. Only 14 teams other than Mike Brown’s Cavs have won at least 60 games in a season since 2000 (the first season after the lockout-shortened 1999 campaign): 2009 Lakers (coached by Phil Jackson), 2009 Celtics (Doc Rivers), 2008 Celtics (Rivers), 2007 Mavericks (Avery Johnson), 2007 Suns (Mike D’Antoni), 2006 Pistons (Flip Saunders), 2006 Spurs (Gregg Popovich), 2006 Mavericks (Johnson), 2005 Suns (D’Antoni), 2004 Pacers (Rick Carlisle), 2003 Spurs (Popovich), 2003 Mavericks (Don Nelson), 2002 Kings (Rick Adelman), 2000 Lakers (Phil Jackson).

Getting rid of a coach is the easiest move to make but now comes the hard part: hiring a coach who will actually do a better job than Brown did, which at this point can mean one thing and one thing only: winning an NBA championship—anything less than that is a failure, because Brown already took the Cavs to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. Good luck finding another coach who can guide the Cavs to 60-plus wins, let alone win a championship; fans may think that coaching an NBA team is easy but a team owner should know better.

Brown is a convenient scapegoat but the first thing that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert should have done after the season ended was sit down one on one with LeBron James, pop in a DVD of game five of the Boston series and ask James, “What was that?” There is no doubt that James quit in that game; the only question is why and James is the only person who can answer that. Considering that Kobe Bryant is playing through an assortment of injuries, Steve Nash hardly bats an eye despite taking numerous shots to his face and Kevin Garnett has persevered despite having to drag around his surgically repaired right leg, it really does not make a whole lot of sense to use an elbow “boo-boo” as an excuse—and what, other than “boo-boo,” can you call an injury that does not show up on an MRI, has been officially called a bruise and did not prevent James from firing half court three pointers prior to game six of the Boston series? I am not saying that James was not hurt at all but there is no reason to believe that he is more seriously injured than a whole host of players who are still making contributions to playoff contenders without uttering any complaints or excuses.

Do not buy the nonsense that James quit because he got frustrated at having to do so much just for the Cavs to have a chance to win—when you are a two-time MVP seeking out a max level contract you are quite rightly expected to be highly productive. Kobe Bryant’s supporting cast is constantly praised and yet look at how productive Bryant has to be for the Lakers to win: during this year’s playoffs, the Lakers are 7-1 when Bryant scores at least 30 points but they are just 3-2 when he scores 24 points or less. During the 2009 playoffs, the Lakers went 7-1 when Bryant scored at least 33 points (including 4-0 when he scored at least 40 points) but they went just 8-6 when he scored 32 points or less, including 1-2 when he scored 20 points or less. The Lakers went 6-2 when Bryant scored at least 33 points in the 2008 playoffs but they were just 8-5 when he scored 32 points or less, including 2-3 when he scored 24 points or less.

The bottom line is that no matter how good a team’s supporting cast is—or how good it is purported to be—teams ultimately rise or fall based on how well their best player performs: to cite just one other example, in the 2003 NBA Finals, Tim Duncan had David Robinson, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Stephen Jackson alongside him but in the clinching game Duncan rang up 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocked shots. So, yes, it is true that James has put up some awesome individual numbers but that does not “prove” that he lacks help; the great players who came before LeBron James and won championships all put up monster numbers during their title runs and James will have to do likewise in order to win his first championship.

It is also very weak that James is conveniently “on vacation” and thus unavailable to make any comment in the wake of Brown’s firing. Does James really think that he can remove his fingerprints from the “crime” simply by being silent? As the team’s leader, he should make some kind of public statement; it would be nice if James had enough humility and honesty to admit that Brown’s emphasis on defense played a large role in helping him to develop into a top flight defensive player.

Unfortunately, just like James stalked off without talking to the media in the wake of Cleveland’s loss to Orlando in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, he left it up to his teammates to respond to the firing of the most successful coach in Cavs’ history. Point guard Mo Williams emphatically defended Brown: “Do I think he deserved it? No. My question is: Who’s out there that’s better? He’s not a bad coach. To fire him, that’s making a big statement. After him, you have to get a Hall of Fame coach. I thought we prematurely acted on our emotions, as an organization. I think he did a good job. If anything, bring in a veteran assistant. I think we just could have gotten better instead of blowing it all up. Now we’re starting over.”

Williams makes an excellent point, because Hank Egan once told me that it takes until “deep into your second year” before a team has completely internalized a new coaching’s staff’s system. Assuming that the Cavs fired Brown in order to fundamentally change their system, it will likely take until well into the 2011-12 season before the Cavs are completely in tune with the new way of doing things.

Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas echoed Williams’ sentiments: “Obviously, we didn’t achieve what we set out to achieve, which is to win a championship. But if you’re going to lay all the blame on Coach Brown and think that’s going to solve everything, you’ve got another thing coming. I think we’re all at fault–the players, everybody. You have to, at some point, accept some of the responsibility. We all have to do that. A coach only can take you so far. At some point you have to do it yourself and we didn’t do it. I think Coach Brown will be fine. He’ll be coaching again, and I’m very sure he’ll have success.”

It is interesting that when the whole Orlando Magic team seemed to quit in game three of the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Celtics the players received the brunt of the blame; the only person who criticized Coach Stan Van Gundy was Van Gundy himself in his postgame press conference. Yet Mike Brown has been fired, in essence, because LeBron James quit in game five versus Boston and Dan Gilbert apparently believes that the Cavs have a better chance of retaining James’ services by cutting ties with Brown. Gilbert and the entire Cavs organization have bent over backwards for five years to please James and James responded by quitting in the most important game of the season, hanging his coach out to dry in the process.

I’ll leave the last word to Ilgauskas. Many people speculated that Ilgauskas had a beef with Coach Brown after Brown did not play Ilgauskas at all on a night when Ilgauskas had invited family members to watch him set the franchise record for most games played (Ilgauskas eventually did set the mark) but Ilgauskas had nothing but positive things to say about Brown, concluding with these words: “I just have this funny feeling that they might come to regret this decision, unless they go for Phil Jackson or something. You can throw all the names you want at the wall, but the reality is different. I’ve been through a lot of coaches and coaching staffs and, trust me, they’re not all that good.”

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What is Wrong With the Cavs?

Entering this year’s playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers seemed to be primed for success while the aging Boston Celtics had been little better than a .500 team for the greater portion of the regular season (27-24 in the final 51 games). The Cavs were nearly unbeatable at home while the Celtics were uncharacteristically vulnerable in Boston and displayed a propensity for blowing big leads. All of the trends suggested that the Cavs should beat the Celtics and TNT’s Charles Barkley even declared that Cleveland could sweep Boston. I did not predict a sweep but I expected the Cavs to eliminate Boston in fewer than seven games, a result that is now impossible in the wake of the Cavs’ embarrassing 120-88 home loss in game five, the second consecutive time that the Celtics have routed the Cavs in Quicken Loans Arena. The Celtics deserve credit for playing some of their best basketball in recent memory, with Rajon Rondo operating at a very high level and Kevin Garnett looking healthier than he has all year, but with all due respect to Boston it is obvious that the Cavs are playing well below their normal standard.

Prior to the series, I said that the Celtics’ one decisive matchup advantage would be Rondo versus whoever checked him. I expected LeBron James to have a significant advantage over Paul Pierce and for Shaquille O’Neal to get various Boston bigs into foul trouble. Based on how hobbled Garnett looked this season, I thought that Garnett and Antawn Jamison would be a wash. Ray Allen has an edge over Anthony Parker but I did not expect that margin to be decisive in the series at this stage of Allen’s career. Throughout the season, the Cavs had a much more consistent and productive bench than the Celtics.

After five games, the reality is that Rondo has been the best player in the series, confounding the Cavs to the point that they tried so hard to contain him in game five that they lost track of future Hall of Famers Pierce, Garnett and Allen. Garnett’s postups have been more consistently effective than Jamison’s drives to the hoop, though the Cavs could even out that matchup a bit by providing Jamison with more touches. James is annihilating Pierce overall but in the pivotal fifth game Pierce clearly got the best of James. O’Neal has shot a high percentage from the field (.510) and the free throw line (.690, a very good number for him) and has delivered all that could reasonably be expected from him in the “Big Bill Cartwright” role. Parker and others have done a credible job versus Allen, though—like Pierce—Allen did break out in game five.

It is easy to blame Coach Mike Brown for the Cavs’ problems but I do not think that Brown’s game plans are defective. When the Cavs have played hard they have beaten the Celtics but the Celtics dominated when the Cavs played lethargically; NBA players are highly paid professional athletes, so something is seriously wrong if the Cavs need “rah, rah” speeches from Brown in order to be motivated. Brown’s mentor, San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, mocked that very concept during his team’s series versus Phoenix; asked if he would remind his team about some of their earlier playoff successes in order to inspire them after the Suns took a 2-0 series lead, Popovich could not conceal his disdain for the reporter’s ignorance and sarcastically said that he might also ask his team to win one for the Gipper. Providing motivation may be a big deal for high school and college coaches but in the professional ranks the coach’s primary responsibility is to devise the correct game plan for each opponent.

No rational person can reasonably criticize Coach Brown’s capabilities as a game planner; during his tenure he transformed the Cavs into a defensive-minded team even though they have always had several players in their rotation who have limitations/liabilities as individual defenders. Recently, it has become chic to declare that Coach Brown is poor at making in game adjustments but I have yet to hear concrete, reasonable suggestions about what he should do differently. The truth of the matter is that game planning is actually far more important than the vaunted in game adjustments. Great coaches like Phil Jackson use their practices to prepare their players for the most likely eventualities and then those coaches generally sit placidly on the bench during games; most coaches who you see jumping up and down and ranting and raving during games are just putting on a show for the TV cameras. If the players are not properly prepared beforehand then it is doubtful that the coach can make some magical adjustment that will turn things around in the heat of battle; in fact, the best “adjustments” are actually moves that were thought of long before the game began. Hall of Fame football coach Bill Walsh famously “scripted” a certain number of plays before each game and many fans assumed that this meant that he ran those plays in a predetermined order regardless of the situation but that is silly; what Walsh did is prepare several sets of plays for various contingencies (second and long, third and short, counters to various blitzes, etc.) and then chose from that list as appropriate. The reason he did this is that he learned during his time as a Cincinnati assistant coach that when the weather is freezing and the play clock is running down the circumstances are not ideal to make in game adjustments: if you have not already prepared something for the situation at hand then you are in trouble: Walsh compared this to trying to run a multimillion dollar company by holding an important board meeting outdoors in freezing cold with severe time constraints.

Anyone who praises Coach Brown’s game planning but criticizes Coach Brown’s in game coaching either does not understand how coaching really works at the professional level or is simply trying to call Brown incompetent without using that word; if the Cavs are really failing to adjust during games then that means that either the players are not executing correctly or the game plan is flawed/incomplete. There are no mystery plays or magic plays; both teams in a playoff series are very familiar with what the other team runs and they go into each game with plans to counteract the opponent’s favorite sets but it is up to the players to execute those plans. For instance, when reporters kept asking Boston Coach Doc Rivers about the possibility of LeBron James being switched onto Rajon Rondo at some point, Rivers replied that the Celtics had factored this into their planning before the series began. If/when the Cavs put James on Rondo for an extended period of time Rivers will not make an “in game adjustment”; he will merely remind his players to execute whatever game plan he put into place before the series. The same is true for Coach Brown regarding various moves that Rivers might make.

The only thing that I would criticize about Brown’s coaching this year is the way that he “rested” players at the end of the regular season. I have never liked that approach in any sport; it has yet to work for the Indianapolis Colts, who almost annually race out to the best record in the NFL but won their only Super Bowl title in the one season in which they did not have the best record and thus did not “rest” players. The Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Chicago Bulls went 72-10 and 69-13 in back to back seasons during their second three-peat, with those star players logging heavy minutes even in “meaningless” late season games. The point is that there really are no “meaningless” games—and this was even more true for the Cavs because they needed to develop chemistry among various players who had not spent much time on the court together. Back in March after Shaquille O’Neal got hurt, I wrote that the one obstacle that could derail Cleveland’s championship quest is that during the playoffs the Cavs would have to develop on court chemistry on the fly because key members of their rotation had not played together very much during the season. The Cavs were so much better than the Chicago Bulls that the talent disparity made up for any chemistry problems in the first round but playing against a Boston team whose nucleus won the 2008 NBA title has revealed that the Cavs are not “on a string” defensively the way that Coach Brown would like them to be; many times in game five you saw two defenders run at one Celtic only to leave another Celtic wide open. Those kinds of communication issues are only solved by practice and repetition and that is why I firmly believe that the Cavs should have set up their playoff rotation during the final regular season games. The Orlando Magic took their final games seriously even though they were “meaningless” in terms of the Eastern Conference standings and it is no coincidence that they are the hottest team in the playoffs right now.

It is not realistic to suggest that Coach Brown bench Mo Williams because Williams has difficulty guarding Rajon Rondo. Guess what—most NBA point guards have trouble defending Rondo; that is why Rondo is an All-Star. The World Champion L.A. Lakers sometimes have to crossmatch because starting point guard Derek Fisher cannot keep up with his counterpart but you don’t see Phil Jackson benching a player who is a key member of the starting lineup. Williams ranks second on the Cavs in the Boston series with 29 assists but he has only committed seven turnovers; James leads the Cavs with 33 assists but he also has 18 turnovers. There is no question that the Cavs need for Williams to improve his shooting percentage but taking him out of his comfort zone as a starter is unlikely to help in that regard. ESPN analyst/Hall of Fame Coach Dr. Jack Ramsay made a great point during a recent radio interview: after his 1977 Portland Trail Blazers lost the first two games of the NBA Finals to the Philadelphia 76ers, his assistant coaches made all kinds of suggestions about strategy changes and lineup alterations but Ramsay concluded that if he so drastically altered his approach that he would be sending the wrong message to the team. Instead, Ramsay told his players that they had not yet played their best game but that if they executed properly that they were good enough to beat Philadelphia. Portland won four straight games to capture the championship.

Some observers complain that the Cavs play too slowly on offense, relying too heavily on postups by Shaquille O’Neal instead of utilizing a smaller, quicker lineup. Did Mike D’Antoni or Don Nelson win an NBA championship when I was not looking? NBA championship teams almost always feature a strong post presence. Even Jordan’s Chicago Bulls had first Bill Cartwright and later Luc Longley and those teams generally featured their centers early in the game in order try to draw fouls and also to force the opposing team to reveal its defensive game plan. Coach Brown is correct to utilize O’Neal in a similar fashion. It is not like O’Neal is shooting the ball 20 times a game but even with limited touches he has often been able to create foul trouble for the opposing team and to get the Cavs in the bonus early, an important factor that casual fans do not fully appreciate.

Depending on how the opponent guards O’Neal, the Cavs can then run different actions to free up cutters and/or three point shooters on the weak side. That is how the Cavs built an eight point lead early in game five. As O’Neal correctly noted after the game, the Cavs did not lose because of how they played offensively but rather because of defensive breakdowns.

The most important thing for a basketball team to do offensively is create penetration into the painted area; that is how a team generates high percentage shots. That can be accomplished by posting up, by driving to the hoop or by passing to cutters. When O’Neal is in the game he is the team’s best postup option; at other times, the Cavs penetrate into the paint via drives by James, Jamison, Williams or Delonte West. The Cavs ranked ninth in scoring during the regular season—ahead of the Lakers and Celtics and right behind the Magic—and they finished third in field goal percentage, so there is little statistical support for the contention that Coach Brown’s offensive game plan is inefficient. The Cavs rank fourth in playoff scoring and third in field goal percentage, so it is not like their offense has fallen apart in the postseason, either.

So if Coach Brown is not the problem and playing “small ball” is not the answer then why are the Cavs facing elimination tonight? The bottom line is simple: even the best game plan in the world will fail if the team’s best player does not invest his mind, heart, body and soul in the process of trying to win a championship. If LeBron James plays at an MVP level and does his part to execute the game plan then his teammates will follow suit and the Cavs will win this series—but after seeing the Cavs lose three of the previous four games to the Celtics it seems increasingly unlikely that James is willing to put his stamp on this series in that manner. The strangest thing so far in this series—other than the fact that Cleveland lost two home games—was the Twilight Zone-like vibe of the postgame press conferences after Cleveland’s game two loss. First, Coach Brown stormed into the room, angrily called out his team and uttered an expletive during a live NBA TV broadcast; then James calmly spoke to the media as if he did not have a care in the world, denying that Brown had said any harsh words to the team in the locker room and joking that perhaps the Coach does not love the media as much as he loves his players. I sat there thinking that either Brown and James were playing “good cop, bad cop” or else there was a serious disconnect between them. It seemed like James’ great game three performance brushed any internal problems under the rug but the past two games have made it increasingly apparent that while Brown is very concerned and disappointed by his team’s poor performance and lack of execution James just does not think that this is a big deal.

Brown is right to be upset, because he very likely will be fired if the Cavs fail to win the championship—but James may be deluding himself if he is assuming that he will definitely have many other opportunities to win a ring. History is littered with the stories of great players and powerful teams that seemed destined to win championships but fell short due to injuries and other unforeseen factors. Dan Marino made it to the Super Bowl after his second season and then never again appeared in the big game. There is no guarantee that James will return to the NBA Finals and it is far from certain that he will ever again play for a team that is as deep, talented and well balanced as this Cleveland team. If James’ apparent indifference is his way of signaling that he wants to play for a different coach and/or a different team he may look back in 10 years and realize that he squandered his best chance to win a ring. James needs to rouse himself out of whatever mental funk he is in and perform in games six and seven the way that he did in game three.

Reloaded Cavs Seek Revenge Against Aging Celtics

Cavaliers vs CelticsThe Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics each cruised through the first round of the playoffs with 4-1 victories over Chicago and Miami respectively, setting up a rematch of their classic seven game 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals duel—but both teams have made significant personnel changes in the past two years.

Cleveland’s 2008 playoff rotation (the top eight players in mpg) included LeBron James, Delonte West, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Wally Szczerbiak, Daniel Gibson, Ben Wallace, Joe Smith and Anderson Varejao, while Sasha Pavlovic and Devin Brown were the only other players who averaged at least 10 mpg; Boston’s 2008 playoff rotation consisted of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, James Posey, P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell, with Leon Powe being the only other player who averaged at least 10 mpg (rookie Glen Davis averaged 8.1 mpg).

Cleveland’s 2010 playoff rotation (the top eight players in minutes played during the first round) includes LeBron James, Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Delonte West, Anthony Parker, Anderson Varejao, Shaquille O’Neal and Jamario Moon. Zydrunas Ilgauskas and J.J. Hickson played significant roles at various times during the regular season but only saw spot duty (8.5 mpg and 4.4 mpg respectively) versus Chicago; Boston’s 2010 playoff rotation (the top eight players in minutes played during the first round) is Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis, Tony Allen and Rasheed Wallace. Shelden Williams averaged 18.0 mpg but he only appeared in one contest—game two—after Garnett was suspended by the league. Michael Finley played just 8.8 mpg versus Miami.

Only James, West and Varejao remain from Cleveland’s 2008 playoff rotation (Ilgauskas is still on the team, of course, but his role has been vastly reduced). James and Varejao are clearly better players now than they were two years ago, while West overall is about the same player that he was. Each of the five new players in the playoff rotation is clearly superior to his predecessor: Williams has replaced Gibson (who, like Ilgauskas, is still on the roster but with a much reduced role), O’Neal has supplanted Ilgauskas and Parker has taken Szczerbiak’s spot, while Jamison and Moon are getting the minutes that went to Wallace and Smith in 2008.

Superficially it looks like Boston has not had quite as much turnover but even though the top five players remain the same their roles have changed: Rondo has emerged as an All-Star and is arguably the team’s most important player, while Garnett—who was the backbone of the team’s suffocating defense during the 2008 championship run—has been hobbled by a knee injury and is no longer a dominant rebounder (7.3 rpg during the regular season, his worst average since his rookie year) or defender (he averaged a career-low .8 bpg this season). Pierce and Allen have both shown signs of age at times, though their overall production now is comparable to their production in 2008. Perkins has improved since 2008, becoming one of the league’s top defensive centers while also ranking second in the NBA in field goal percentage this season (.602). A big difference between the 2008 Celtics and the 2010 Celtics is that the 2008 squad had a deep bench comprised of playoff-seasoned veterans Cassell, Brown and Posey, plus young big man Powe (who later suffered a knee injury and is now a reserve for the Cavs), while the 2010 squad has a bench that is much more suspect: Davis is a solid contributor and Tony Allen has had some good moments, but Wallace has been a huge disappointment both literally—in terms of the excessive pounds he is carrying around his midsection—and figuratively.

Although the 2008 Celtics proved to be one of the most dominant defensive teams in recent memory en route to winning the championship, the Cavaliers pushed them to the brink, extending the series to seven games before dropping a 97-92 decision in the Boston Garden as Pierce (41 points, five assists, four rebounds) and James (45 points, six assists, five rebounds) staged a duel for the ages. James and Pierce are still the closers for their respective teams; James is now a consistently effective jump shooter, while Pierce added career-high three point shooting accuracy (.414) to his already deadly midrange game.

The 2008 Celtics led the NBA with a 10.2 point differential and a .419 defensive field goal percentage while ranking second in points allowed (90.3 ppg); the 2008 Cavs ranked 15th in point differential, 11th in defensive field goal percentage and ninth in points allowed, though some of those numbers are a bit skewed because the Cavs made some trades and dealt with some injuries to key players: by the time the playoffs rolled around, they were playing at a higher level than those regular season statistics portray, as demonstrated by how competitive the Cavs were versus the Celtics. However, one statistic that really jumps out from that season is that the Celtics ranked second in field goal percentage (.475) while the Cavs ranked just 27th (.439); perhaps lingering memories of that Cleveland team’s struggles on offense explain why some people still carp about Coach Mike Brown’s alleged deficiencies as an offensive coach but the reality is that the 2010 Cavs are a very potent offensive team, ranking third in the league in field goal percentage (.485), just ahead of fourth place Boston (.483). The Cavs have also improved defensively since 2008, ranking in the top five this season in point differential (second), defensive field goal percentage (fourth) and points allowed (fifth). The Celtics ranked ninth, ninth and sixth respectively in those categories this season.

The teams split the 2009-10 season series 2-2 but—as is often the case—you can largely disregard the statistics from those games: Cleveland’s first loss to Boston took place in the season opener when the Cavs were still getting used to their new roster additions, while the second loss happened on April 4 when O’Neal was out due to injury. Cleveland’s first win against Boston came on February 25 when the Cavs were nearly at full strength (missing only Ilgauskas) while the Celtics were without the services of Pierce, but the second win was a bit more significant: a Cleveland team without both O’Neal and Ilgauskas beat a full-strength Boston squad 104-93.

One weird statistic about the 2010 Celtics is that they actually did better on the road (26-15) than they did at home (24-17). That does not bode well for the Celtics, because the Cavs have been almost unbeatable at home the past two seasons and they are just as good on the road as the Celtics are, matching Boston with a 26-15 road record this season. The home team won every game in the 2008 series and has been very dominant in general when these teams have faced off during recent seasons, but those statistical splits suggest that Cleveland is more likely to get a win in Boston than vice versa.

Cleveland’s homecourt advantage could obviously prove to be significant if a game seven is necessary but I do not expect that this series will go the distance. A dominant 2008 Boston team stacked with three healthy future Hall of Famers barely defeated a Cleveland team that was not as deep or talented as this year’s Cleveland team, so it hardly would be logical to expect that an older, less dominant Boston team will beat the Cavs this time around. The one X factor, as every Cavs fan certainly knows by now, could possibly be the status of LeBron James’ mysterious elbow injury—but even though the troublesome joint has caused James some discomfort and even temporarily affected his play, overall he has been performing at an extremely high level for weeks despite this problem, so at this point it does not seem that the injury is likely to get worse in the course of normal game action nor does it seem likely that it will seriously impair James’ productivity or efficiency.