Celtics-Cavaliers Eastern Conference Semifinal Preview

After defeating the Heat in the first round, the Boston Celtics will now face the Cleveland Cavaliers in a repeat matchup of 2008's Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Celtics got the best of the Cavs in that series, winning it in seven games. This year, both teams handled their opening round opponents with a fair amount of ease, each eliminating their respective opponent in five games. LeBron James averaged just under 32 points per game for Cleveland, while the Celtics duo of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen combined to score an average of 39 a game against the Heat.

This year, the story is still the same for Cleveland. Superstar and sure-fire league MVP LeBron James is still looking for his first ring, in this his 7th NBA season. However, many of the characters have changed. Cavs GM Danny Ferry has done some serious revamping to the Cleveland roster since the two teams last met in the postseason. In '08, LeBron was joined in the starting lineup by Ben Wallace, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and former Celtics Delonte West andWally Szczerbiak. This year, when Game 1 tips off, James will be the only returning starter. Over the past couple seasons, Ferry has brought in Anthony Parker, as well as all-stars Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, and Shaquille O'Neal to join James in the starting 5. West and Big Z still come off the bench for head coach Mike Brown, along with Anderson Varejao, Jamario Moon, and JJ Hickson.

For the Celtics, this is probably the last year for the "Big Three" of Pierce, Allen, and Kevin Garnett to make a legitimate playoff run. After winning it all in '08, the C's were eliminated in seven games by the Orlando Magic last year in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Without KG, Boston just didn't have enough to get by Dwight Howard and company. This year, however, the Celtics are healthy and are probably playing their best basketball since the 2008 NBA Finals against the Lakers. They have the same team nucleus that they did when they faced Cleveland two years ago. Point Guard Rajon Rondo has more than come into his own these last two years. He led the league in steals and was among the league leaders in assists during this year's regular season. However, Boston's bench looks much older, slower, and weaker this time around. Veterans PJ Brown and Sam Cassell have been replaced by Michael Finley and Rasheed Wallace. High energy players James Posey, Leon Powe and Eddie House are no longer with the team. The only semi-consistent contributors off the bench besides Finley are Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Tony Allen.

Player Matchups:
Point Guard
Rajon Rondo vs. Mo Williams
This is an interesting matchup of two all-star PGs. Both are probably top ten in the NBA at their position, but they are entirely different types of players. Rondo is one of the fastest players in the league with the basketball in his hands. He is an excellent ballhandler and makes highlight reel passes on a daily basis. Rondo can attack the basket and finish well at the rim, as well as make an open jump shot from time to time. Teams used to be able to play off of him on the perimeter, not anymore. Rajon also is a great defender and uses his speed and great hands to deflect passes and make steals. Mo Williams on the other hand, is an outstanding knock down shooter. Mo averaged 15.6 points per game in the opening round and shot nearly 43% from beyond the arc in the regular season. Although it isn't his forte, Mo can also distribute the ball. He averaged over five assists a game this season. If the Celtics want to take this series, this is a matchup they definitely need to take advantage of.

Edge: Rondo
Shooting Guard
Ray Allen vs. Anthony Parker
This is definitely the wild card matchup. Ray Allen can make or break the series for Boston. He showed that in last year's playoffs, dropping 51 points in Game 6 of Boston's series against the Chicago Bulls in the opening round of the playoffs last year. Ray shot nearly 53% from beyond the arc in Boston's series against the Heat. Unfortunately, when Ray is struggling, it seems like the he can't make anything. Anthony Parker is a solid role player. He plays team defense and knocks down open shots with decent range. He can not guard Ray Allen off the dribble and will also have trouble keeping up with Ray off the ball while trying to dodge Perkins, Davis, and Garnett screens. If Boston wants to win this series, Ray Allen will need to abuse Parker, something he can absolutely do.

Edge: Allen
Small Forward
Paul Pierce vs. LeBron James
This is the premier one on one matchup in the series. Although only a fool would favor Pierce over LeBron, Paul plays his best against "The Chosen One." He dropped 41 points in the infamous Game 7 of their series in '08 to give the Celtics the game and the series. LeBron is going to score big points every night. There is nothing anyone in green and white can do about that. However, if Pierce and company can force LeBron to take jump shots, they can at least make him work for his points. The Bulls were unable to keep James out of the paint, which is why he shot nearly 57% from the field in the series. LeBron is odds on the best player in this league. He can shoot, pass, dribble, rebound, and block shots as well as anyone in the NBA. It's going to take a really strong defensive effort by the whole Celtics team to slow him down.

Edge: James
Power Forward
Kevin Garnett vs. Antawn Jamison
Garnett and Jamison are a great matchup for each other. Both players are athletic scorers with smooth jumpers and the ability to finish strong at the rim. KG definitely brings more to the table on the defensive end with his high level of intensity, but Jamison is a capable ballhandler and stretches the floor with 3 point range.  Garnett steps it up in big games and performs well down the stretch, while Jamison has struggled at times since coming to the Cavs. However, when Antawn is on his game, he's good for 20-10 every night. The key to stopping Jamison on the defensive end is to body him up. KG needs to stick with him and prevent him from using his speed and quickness to get to the hoop.

Edge: Even
Kendrick Perkins vs. Shaquille O'Neal
 The casual basketball fan would think this is a great matchup for the Cavs. Shaq is known as one of the biggest names in the game, while Perk is just the big man who fills out the fifth spot in Boston's starting lineup. He is overshadowed by three established superstars and another on the rise, but Perkins is certainly more than a role player. He uses his strong lower body to prevent other big men from establishing post position near the basket and is one of the best interior defenders in the league. Magic superstar forward Dwight Howard said this of Perk, "He is a really good low-post defender. He knows how to use his body to his advantage." I don't think Perk will be able to do too much against Shaq on the offensive end, but I don't foresee O'Neal cracking double digit points in any game this series.

Edge: Perkins
Celtics Bench vs. Cavaliers Bench
This is definitely the area where Cleveland can win the series. Ilgauskas, Varejao, Moon and West can come off the bench and make a difference in the game. All four of them could start for half the teams in the league. Moon and West are both lethal from behind the 3 point line, and Ilgauskas can hit open 20 footers all day. Varejao is one of the best rebounders in the league and makes hustle plays, especially late in games. Boston's core reserves of Glen "Big Baby" Davis, Tony Allen, and Michael Finley have the potential to be key contributors, but they all lack consistency. Big Baby, along with KG and Perk need to keep Varejao and Big Z off the boards. TA will definitely get some time guarding LeBron. He did a pretty good job terrorizing D-Wade last series and always seems to step it up defensively when he gets matched up with big name players. Finley's role is simple, he is a late game shooter. They put him in when they need points. He will get open looks with Pierce, Ray Ray, and KG on the floor. He just has to knock them down.

Edge: Cavs Bench

Keys to the Series:
1. Shut down LeBron's supporting cast. The Celtics will not be able to keep LeBron under 25 points a game. However,  Boston needs to keep Jamison, Shaq, and Mo Williams in check. Williams and Jamison combined for 35 points per game in their opening round series against the Bulls. If the C's can drop that number to 25, they should be in good shape.

2. Get Ray Allen open looks early. Ray is a rhythm shooter. We've all seen what he can do when he comes out of the gates hot, but we've also seen what happens when he doesn't get involved in the offense early on. Rondo and Doc need to make sure Ray Ray gets good looks early, because once he gets going, almost nothing can stop him.

3. Control the defensive boards. Perk, KG, and Big Baby need to box out their men and the guards need to help clean the boards as well. The Cavaliers have a handful of capable rebounders in Shaq, Ilgauskas, Varejao, James, and Jamison and Boston can't afford to give up second chances defensively. That fivesome pulled down 39 offensive boards in their series against Chicago. The C's will have a hard time beating the Cavs if that happens again.

1. Don't settle for outside shots. LeBron James, as well as the rest of the guards and small forwards need to take the ball to the basket. Mo Williams, Delonte West, and Anthony Parker are good outside shooters, but driving to the basket will not only create opportunities on the inside, but open up shooters on the outside. Driving to the hole will also lead to Boston picking up more fouls. If any of the Celtics three big men, Garnett, Perkins, or Davis, get in serious foul trouble, Boston will have a hard time winning.

2. Run the fast break. LeBron is possibly the best open court player in the history of the NBA. He's like an NFL running back after breaking through the line. His size, speed, strength, and decision making ability make him borderline unguardable in the open court. If Shaq and the rest of the big guys can clear the defensive boards and throw good outlet passes, the Cavs will dominate the fast break game.

3. Get LeBron the ball at the end of the game. In Game 5 of their series against the Bulls, the Cavs failed to get James the ball at the end of the game. They easily could have lost that game, but got lucky as Derrick Rose rimmed out a couple of close shots. If they run James off screens, rather than having

1. Paul Pierce: The Celtics captain stepped up his game in '08 against the Cavs, and if Boston want to beats LeBron and company again, Pierce will need a repeat performance. Paul did a great job of playing within his game in Boston's series against the Heat. He made great decisions with the ball and shot very efficiently from the field at nearly 46%. He's the C's go to guy late in games, usually on an isolation play at the top of the key. If Pierce can knock down those clutch shots, Boston will be tough to beat.

2. Glen Davis: Big Baby was instrumental in Game 2 against Miami. He had 23 points and 8 rebounds filling in for KG while he was serving his 1 game suspension. Davis needs to pull down offensive rebounds and get to the free throw line like he did in the last series. If he can keep Varejao off the boards and help on LeBron when necessary he'll have done his job defensively.

1. LeBron James: James is out for revenge after the 2008 series and is coming for it with a vengeance. He tore the Bulls defense apart in his opening round series like it was nothing. He made Luol Deng look like Sheed out there. There is no limit to what he can do in this series. He takes over games like no one else in the league except maybe Kobe. Would I be surprised if he averaged 30 points and a triple double for the series? Not even a little bit.

2. Anderson Varejao: The Brazilian big man can be a huge difference maker for Cleveland in this series. He is a high energy player than extends possessions with offensive rebounds and brings more intensity to the court than any other player in the series, excluding KG. The keys to taking Varejao out of the game are to box him out on rebounds and to attack him on the defensive end, rather then let him roam down low and block shots.

My Predictions:
1. LeBron averages 30+ points for the series
2. Paul Pierce wins at least one game in the last Celtics possession
3. Celtics take the series in 7 games