As of the most recent clash between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, the Eastern Conference’s top seed is still up for grabs. Despite an impressive beat down of the Celtics Wednesday, the team’s outlook for the playoffs is still up in the air after the troublesome month of March. Many still question whether this team has what it takes to beat the likes of the Warriors, Spurs, and even the Celtics in a seven-game series.
With a 7-10 record in March, the Cavs struggled this past month, mainly because of their defense. In March, the team gave up 109 points per game, which puts their defense on the same level as the Brooklyn Nets and Phoenix Suns, two teams bringing in the rear for their respective conferences. Bad losses to the Pistons and Nuggets on the road prove that this team is in need of some defensive reinforcements.
If Lebron had a time machine; he would go back in time and complain about the team not having enough good defenders instead of not enough playmakers. Perhaps not having Timofey Mozgov’s shot altering presence in the paint has put too much pressure on an undersized center in Tristian Thompson.
Andrew Bogut looked to have shored out most of the interior defensive problems for all of the two minutes he had played for the Cavs before he blew out his leg. Bringing Larry Sanders into the fold this late in the season could be Ty Lue’s ace in the hole, but it’s too late in the season for card tricks, and with five games left before the playoffs you are who you are, and the Cavs are a bad defensive team.
Offensively, the additions of former All-Stars Deron Williams and Kyle Korver have given Lebron and Kyrie more space to work with, but they cannot be relied on for heavy minutes as they are both a liability defensively. With Williams on the court, the opposing team’s offensive rating is 110.8 and with Korver on that spikes to 116.8. To put that in perspective, only the top 5 offenses in the NBA right now can score like that on a regular basis. The problem with the Cavs is that in March they made every team they played look like a top 5 offense against them.
Cleveland’s struggles lately have overshadowed the play of Kyrie Irving, who averaged 27 points per game and has quietly been the best scoring guard in the NBA outside of Isaiah Thomas and Stephen Curry. Like Wade did to Lebron in Miami, Lebron now has to hand the keys to the kingdom to Kyrie Irving if he plans on competing against a healthy Warriors squad in the Finals, because GM Lebron has clearly gotten in the way of four-time MVP Lebron.
If I told you before the season, the Celtics would be the first team in the East to reach 50 wins; you would have probably assumed they had used the same time machine Lebron had to go back and recruit Kevin Durant even harder to take his talents to Southie. However, sans Durant, the Celtics have been a well-oiled machine going into the latter stages of the season. Whether it be their dominant 4th quarter performance against Golden State at Oracle or their impressive revenge game against John Wall and the Wizards, the Celtics have been a team to be reckoned with in March posting an 11-5 record. Being an undersized scoring point guard, most expected Isaiah Thomas to regress offensively this late in the season since he can’t carry this kind of load for the Celtics on his 5’9 shoulders.
To the surprise of Celtics naysayers, he has kept up his All-Star-worthy production at 28 points per game in March on 47% shooting. Last season, Thomas was compromised in the playoffs as the Atlanta Hawks were able to be physical with him and force him off the ball. This season, the Celtics have reinforcements to guard against that.
Marcus Smart has seamlessly slipped into the Evan Turner role as secondary ball handler besides Thomas. He has upped his assist percentage from 15.8 to 21.6, which is solid enough for him to put a firm grip on the backup point guard spot in front of second-year guard Terry Rozier. Rookie Jaylen Brown has received valuable playing time due to injuries to Avery Bradley and has taken advantage of it with his surprising outside shot. For the season, he is shooting better than Stephen Curry from the right corner albeit at fewer attempts.
Boston’s bigs will have to outplay their guards as teams will be trapping the King of the Fourth as early as the first possession in the playoffs. Celtics are hoping they can use these last handful of games to get both Al Horford and Kelly Olynyk going from the outside. In the same way, Larry Sanders could be a wild card for the Cavs; the 7-foot Canadian could give the Celtics frontcourt the offensive jolt they need to last in the playoffs. His underrated playmaking and outside shot will bode well for the C’s if he can make the Draymond Green play off a trap and find the open man in the corner or take the open 15 footer teams will dare him to shoot.
Boston’s defeat this past Wednesday to relinquish the top spot in the East may have been deflating, but it is unlikely that the combination of Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley will shoot 3-23 from the floor in every game against the Cavaliers. Come playoff time it will be put up or shut up for both teams.
- I'm a 19-year old sophomore dual major in Journalism and Sports Management at Eastern Nazarene College. Born in Boston, MA raised in Brockton, and just happy to be here at NGSC Sports.