Celtics-Cavaliers. Hmm. It's a series we've sort of been expecting, even if some thought Washington might prevail in Round 1 (whoever could have thought that?) and the Celtics would be suffering from cabin fever after their first-round sweep of the Hawks (whoever could have thought that?)
Be that as it may, LeBron James and the fellas are in town and the Eastern Conference semifinals start tonight. One oddsmaker has the Celtics at a rather eyebrow-raising 5-2 to sweep the series while the best he can offer for the Cavs is 15-1 to win it in seven games. Here's a look at some of the factors that may determine who goes on and who goes home.
The History Factor: Well, this is not Celtics-Lakers. Or Celtics-Sixers. Or even Celtics-Hawks. This will be the fourth time the Celtics and Cavaliers have met in the postseason - the first since the epic seven-gamer of 1992, which turned out to be Larry Bird's swan song. The first time was in 1976, in the conference finals, and the Cavs were on a roll, coached by a leisure suit-wearing wisecracker named Bill Fitch. The Celtics won in six hard-fought games. Nine years later, their paths crossed in the first round. Cleveland was a bad eighth-place team (36 wins) coached by a rookie named George Karl but gave the Celtics problems before succumbing in four games. One memory from that series: Scott Wedman refusing to practice in the Cavs' gym because of asbestos. Another: Bird missing a game because of injury. Then in 1992, the teams went at it in the conference semifinals. Boston won Game 2 in Cleveland (Easy Ed Pinckney came up huge). Cleveland (with a memorable block from Larry Nance) got Game 4 in Boston. The last three games were routs. Cleveland won Game 5 by 16. Boston won Game 6 by 31. Then, on the way to Game 7 at the Richfield Coliseum, there were signs directing the Celtics bus to "Larry's Last Game." Robert Parish dribbled the ball off his foot on the Celtics' first possession and it snowballed from there: Cavs, 122-104. Bird officially retired a few months later.
The LeBron Factor: When was the last time the Celtics faced a guy like this in the postseason? Jason Kidd in his early Jersey days probably comes closest in terms of one player having so much impact on the game. While Kidd could control the offense, he couldn't score like James. You might see some of the same stuff the Celtics did against Joe Johnson, but they know LeBron is no JJ. He's better. And he has better teammates. What makes it amazing is that James is still only 23. He's younger than Leon Powe. Not surprisingly, he was the center of most of the discussions yesterday at Celtics practice. One of the things we wanted to know: Did Ray Allen feel cheated that LeBron beat him out for All-Star Game MVP? "I might have got it if I had shot it a couple more times," Allen surmised. Spoken like a true scorer.
The International Factor: This is one-sided. The Celtics haven't had much of anything in the way of international players over the years, but one of their more recent ones, Jiri Welsch, was traded to Cleveland for a first-round pick. Boston later used that pick in a deal to acquire Rajon Rondo. (Cleveland traded Welsch to Milwaukee for a second-rounder four months after giving up a first-rounder. Not one of Jim Paxson's better moves.) The Cavs are big on foreigners, starting with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, their mammoth, altitudinous, Lithuanian center. Anderson Varejao, of Brazil, gives them energy, rebounding, and shot blocking off the bench. Serbian Sasha Pavlovic, a big help last season, is injured and played only two minutes in the Wizards series.
The Trade Factor: The Cavaliers drastically remade their team at the 11th hour and 59th minute before the trading deadline in February, bringing in Joe Smith and Ben Wallace from Chicago and Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West from Seattle. The first two guys bring defense. The second two bring offense, although West was roundly praised for his defense by his ex-teammates yesterday. "It gave them more bodies," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said when asked about the trade. "[General manager] Danny Ferry looked at his team, saw that it made it to the Finals and lost, and decided he needed to do better." The Celtics made their trades in the summer, adding a couple of late pieces of driftwood in P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell. Here's the most important factor in the Cleveland deal: LeBron likes it. End of story.
The Rest Factor: The Cavs have been off since eliminating Washington Friday. The Celtics have been off since, well, they haven't been off, getting extended to the max by Atlanta. Of course, the predictable line from the Boston players was that they'd rather have it this way, playing every other day, just like the regular season. "I don't like to sit around three, four, five days anyway," Paul Pierce said. "We got a bunch of old guys. We don't need to sit around too much." Of course, if they had taken care of business against Atlanta as they should have, Pierce would have said, "We got a bunch of old guys. We need the time to rest." One thing that wasn't affected by the seven-game series: preparation. "When Cleveland went up, 3-1, we put away the Washington file," Rivers said. "As for our preparation, we were done three days ago. The players all had booklets in their lockers after [Game 7]. I don't know if they read them or not, but judging by what happened at practice, I think most of them did."
We'll find out soon enough.
Peter May can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.