After a first-round series win over Washington, Cleveland comes in with extra rest and preparation time. The Celtics did not count on having to go the full seven games with Atlanta, and the physical and emotional toll of those extra two or three games could have an effect in this series.
There will be no easy baskets in this series and plenty of tough, physical play, as Boston led the league in defense and held Atlanta to 41 percent shooting in the first round. Cleveland was the best rebounding team in the Eastern Conference this season and held the Wizards to 42 percent shooting in their first-round series.
These teams split their regular season series 2-2, but only the Feb. 27 game that Boston won 92-87 can really be used as a gauge, since this was the only game played after the trade deadline with the rosters as they are for this series.
Boston's game plan should be similar to that game, with lots of screening action for Ray Allen -- who is Cleveland's biggest matchup problem. The Celtics will set two and three screens at a time for him, giving him the chance to catch and shoot or drive off the shot fake. They will screen for and isolate Paul Pierce in the midpost and on top of the floor, and post Kevin Garnett or pop him out for midrange jumpers. The Celtics ran lots of ball-screen action for Rajon Rondo, and Kendrick Perkins was able to use his quickness to get easy baskets with all the attention on the big three.
Defensively, the Celtics swarmed LeBron James, who had 26 points but shot only 7-of-24 from the floor -- the Celtics were especially aggressive and trapped him on all ball screens. James has posted big numbers against the Celtics this season, but the big concern for the Cavaliers is where the rest of their points will come from. They must establish Zydrunas Ilgauskas as their primary post scoring option and get solid perimeter shooting from their guards; this was also a question for Cleveland in the Washington series, but they got big performances from Wally Szczerbiak, Daniel Gibson and Delonte West at key times. They will need the same type of production against a much better defensive team.
Has provided stability at the point for the Cavs as well as clutch 3-point shooting. Hit game-winning 3 in Game 4 vs. the Wizards; in Games 5 and 6, had 15 assists and not a single turnover. He has gotten more comfortable in his role as a distributor, and he is doing exactly what the Cavs had in mind when they traded for him.
West, who played the past three seasons for the Celtics, had 19 points off the bench vs. Boston in December as a member of the Sonics. He had 20 points as a starter in his third game with the Cavaliers on Feb. 27 -- shooting 63 percent in the two games. His battle with former teammate Rondo will be a contrast of styles -- West's steadiness and shooting vs. Rondo's quickness and driving ability. With these two knowing each other so well, whoever gets the best of this matchup could tip the series in his team's favor.
He has spent this season proving he is not the weak link in the Celtics' chain, and has grown in confidence and earned the trust of his All-Star teammates. With a 7-to-1 assist/turnover ratio in the playoffs so far, he is handling and distributing like a championship point guard. He also provides Boston's speed in transition.
Averaged 10.8 points on 45 percent shooting vs. Cleveland in four games, including eight points and eight assists in the Celtics' Feb. 27 win. However, he did have eight turnovers in the past two games with Cleveland, and his matchup with former teammate Delonte West may come down to which guard takes better care of the ball in crucial situations.
Wally Szczerbiak: Played a huge role in two of Cleveland's wins over Washington -- scoring 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting and helping get the blowout going in Game 2, and then coming up big with six 3s and 26 points in the series-closing win in Game 6. He can post and drive, but the Cavaliers mostly need his 3-point shooting against the Celtics.
Scored 14 points vs. Boston as a Sonic, and 12 as a Cav. The defensive matchup here will be key for Cleveland, as Szczerbiak will guard Ray Allen or Paul Pierce in certain situations. His size at the 2 may mean more playing time for him, and his ability to make shots and defend adequately will be key.
He is the Celtics' best perimeter shooter with one of the purest 3-point strokes in the league. Averaged 16.1 points vs. Atlanta and shot 50 percent from 3-point range before a 2-of-13 cold streak in Games 6 and 7. The Cavs have their hands full with this matchup, as they were unable to keep Allen contained using multiple defenders in the regular season.
Allen averaged 23.1 points on 51 percent shooting and 41 percent from behind the arc in four games with the Cavs -- scoring 29, 20, 24 and 22 points. Brown and Szczerbiak will see duty on Allen, whose size and scoring ability may keep Cleveland from playing its small lineup with West and Gibson on the floor at the same time.
Expect Allen to receive multiple screens on every possession and continue to have big scoring numbers with his shooting and pull-up game in this series. Cleveland's ability to limit his offense will be a key to this series.
Looking for any more superlatives for James is a waste of time -- he is simply the best player in the Eastern Conference and the player in this series with the best chance to take over and win a game by himself. He is the leader of the Cavs, their go-to-guy, and he must have a big series and produce clutch plays at crunch time. When he is aggressive and attacking, he creates easy plays for his teammates, and their confidence grows with his assertiveness.
He averaged 29.8 points on 48 percent shooting vs. the Wizards, and had 30 or more points in four of the six games. Had 38 points in the Cavs' win over Boston early in the year, and 33 points on 4-of-8 3-point shooting in Cleveland's one-point win in February.
Expect him to rise to the challenge as he did in the regular season vs. the C's -- with aggressive attacks to the rim and clutch shooting at crunch time. His battle with Paul Pierce will be the matchup to watch.
The Celtics' leading scorer, their best one-on-one player and their second-best 3-point shooter in the playoffs (15-of-36 vs. Atlanta). Pierce's offensive versatility allows him to score inside and out, so he isn't terribly concerned with size or quickness from his defender.
He did not have great games against Cleveland this season, averaging only 13.5 points on 37 percent shooting and committing 15 turnovers in the four games. The physical demands of his defensive assignment of guarding LeBron James takes its toll on Pierce's offensive efficiency, and Pierce must look to get his points within the flow of the offense and not force the action.
Look for the Celtics to try to establish him early on the offensive end and force James into greater defensive responsibility, and expect Pierce to drive at James to get some early fouls.
Wallace has one primary job in this series -- defend Kevin Garnett. Wallace's defensive presence gives the Cavs a solid one-on-one matchup for Boston's best player, and he can provide physical toughness and shot-blocking ability against Garnett's aggressive post game.
Wallace provides little on offense and is a horrible foul shooter, which presents a personnel problem for Cleveland in close games if they have to lose his defensive ability to keep him off the free-throw line. He can provide offensive rebounding to save possessions and an occasional layup on a dish from LeBron.
Played only 22 minutes per game against the Wizards, but blocked two shots in three of the games and averaged seven rebounds per game. He had eight points and 14 rebounds vs. the Celtics as a member of the Bulls early in the season.
To what extent he can keep Garnett from having monster games of points, rebounds and assists will play a big part in determining this series.
The heart and soul of the Celtics, Garnett wills his teammates to greater effort vocally and through example. He is their low-post offensive option with power moves for jump hooks and turnaround jump shots, and can step out to 20 feet for the jump shot, as well. He is also one of the best passing power forwards in the NBA.
He led the Celtics in scoring in the first round with 21.0 points on 48 percent shooting, and had double-doubles in four of the seven games. Averaged only 15 points and eight rebounds in three games against Cleveland, but had 18 points and 11 rebounds in his only matchup with Ben Wallace in a Cavalier uniform.
Garnett brings a toughness and competitiveness that few players in the league can match, which he will need since the Cavs may throw multiple defenders and big bodies at him throughout the series. Expect Garnett to be a scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking machine in this series.
He is the Cavs' low-post offensive option and second-leading scorer. Averaged 14.5 points on 53 percent shooting in the first round, but the Cavs got away from going to him in certain stretches of games. He will post and power into the middle for the jump hook, and will shoot the turnaround baseline jump shot. Will also set big ball screens and roll or pop for the short jumper.
Averaged 14 points on 55 percent shooting against Boston this year. Had 15 points and 15 rebounds in the Nov. 27 win, and 21 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in the Feb. 5 win. When the Cavs beat the Celtics, Ilgauskas was a big reason why.
His size is a problem for Boston, although Perkins and Garnett are much quicker. Big Z will go to his power game and give Cleveland a big post scoring option. Much like Washington did, look for the Celtics to put him into as much ball-screen action as possible and make him chase Boston's quicker big men.
Perkins provides the screens, hustle plays and dirty work for Boston at the center position. He just tries to stay out of the way of the big three and gets his points when defenses concentrate on everyone else. He and Garnett make a formidable shot-blocking tandem on the league's toughest defensive unit.
Averaged 7.6 points on 60 percent shooting in the first round -- with 10 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in Game 7. In four regular-season games against Cleveland, he averaged 8.8 points and 4.5 rebounds, and pulled down four offensive rebounds Boston's one-point loss to the Cavs on Feb. 5.
Anderson Varejao: Cleveland's primary interior player off the bench. Provides size, defense and a little more scoring and versatility than Wallace at the 4, and more athleticism than Ilgauskas at the 5. Will also guard Garnett to give KG a different look. Averaged only three points on 30 percent shooting in the Washington series, and his minutes dropped as the series went on. Played 27 minutes in his only game vs. Boston this season and did not score.
Daniel Gibson: Backup point guard and key 3-point shooter off the bench. Will sometimes play with West in smaller lineup. Averaged 11.5 points on 15-of-30 from 3-point range against the Wizards. Had 11 points on 2-of-4 shooting from 3 in the Cavs' February win in Boston. Will be needed to step up and make shots again.
Devin Brown: Provides shooting and a little more size at guard. Averaged 5 points in 14 minutes per game against the Wizards in the first round. Was ineffective against Boston in the regular season.
Joe Smith: Provides more scoring at the 4 spot than Wallace or Varejao. Averaged 5.5 points vs. Wizards in almost 20 minutes per game. Might be needed to keep Garnett honest on the defensive end. Look for him to take shots from the high post and on the baseline.
Boston's best 3-point shooter off the bench (11-of-28 from behind the arc; averaged 7.4 points against the Hawks in the first round). Has been hot and cold against Cleveland this year in four games, averaging only 6 points on 40 percent shooting. A good defender who can tag team with Pierce on LeBron.
Athletic forward who can provide scoring on the second unit. Averaged 6.7 points in 17 minutes per game against Atlanta, scoring in double figures three times. Scored 13 points in 14 minutes against in the Celtics' win over Cleveland on Feb. 27.
Veteran point guard played only 13 minutes a game in the first round, down from 23 per game in the regular season. Rondo's high level of play has limited Cassell's minutes, but he lit up the Cavs for 28 points back in November as a Clipper. He can provide a scoring punch and veteran savvy.
A big, athletic body the Celtics can use against Cleveland's front line. Had nine points and four rebounds in 23 minutes in Boston's 92-87 win over the Cavs.
Minutes have dwindled in the playoffs, but can provide 3-point shooting if needed.
LeBron loves the challenge of playing against the NBA's best team, and he could very well average 40 points a game in this series. Cleveland must get consistent contributions from the supporting cast. The Celtics will spread out their offensive production among Pierce, Allen and Garnett, and they will swarm James defensively.
If this series becomes one star vs. three, Boston will end it early. If LeBron's teammates can rise to the level of their leader, the Celtics will need their home-court advantage again in Game 7.
Prediction: Boston 4, Cleveland 3
Mike Moreau is the director of basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.