8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Cavaliers -1, Over/Under: 222
A potential Conference Finals Preview is on tap tonight from TD Garden, as the Boston Celtics host the Cleveland Cavaliers in a matchup featuring the top two seeds in the East. On the heels of the NBA Trade Deadline, the Cavaliers (41-17, 1st in Eastern Conference) are very much a team of moving parts, as they have franticly exhausted their options in improving their roster in preparation for the Playoffs. With Kevin Love (Knee) and J.R. Smith (Thumb) not expected to return from injury until early April, and LeBron James (25.6 PTS, 54.1% FG, 38.7% 3FG, 7.9 REB, 8.9 AST, 1.4 STL) and Kyrie Irving (24.6 PTS, 46.6% FG, 38.3% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.2 STL) logging heavier minutes than they’d like, Management has been on the lookout for bargains on the market for quite a while now, and if reports are to be believed, then reinforcements are indeed on their way. After being traded to Philadelphia last week, former Mavericks’ Center Andrew Bogut (3.0 PTS, 46.9% FG, 8.3 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.0 BLK) was bought out of his contract, and is reportedly on his way to Cleveland, which would give Tyronn Lue and his charges a legitimate seven-footer that can contest shots at the rim, and provide support on the boards. While he’s far from the former No. One Overall Pick that averaged 12.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.6 blocks throughout his seven years in Milwaukee, Bogut can still be an effective presence in the paint in limited minutes, as was the case over the past two years in Golden State. Defense is certainly something that this team needs in considerable doses, for they have been less than stellar in this department thus far; despite allowing a respectable 105.9 points (10th Overall), the Cavs have been gashed on 45.5% shooting from the field (16th Overall), including 36.4% from beyond the arc (22nd Overall), while permitting 24.6 assists (27th Overall) in comparison to forcing just 13.3 turnovers (24th Overall). Furthermore, they’ve struggled mightily in limiting offensive rebounds, yielding 11.0 a night (23rd Overall), which is an area where Bogut can certainly improve matters. And while it hasn’t happened, the other proverbial shoe to drop is the potential acquisition of former All-NBA Point Guard Deron Williams (13.1 PTS, 43.0% FG, 34.8% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 6.9 AST), who may (or may not) be on the verge of being bought out by the Mavs. Another player well past his prime, but with plenty left in the tank in a reduced role, would be a huge addition for Cleveland, as James has openly campaigned for help at Point Guard for months now. And with good reason; James and Irving have accounted for 14.9 of the team’s 22.5 assists (18th Overall), or in other words, 66.2% of all ball distribution, so a fellow playmaker would be welcomed right away. With that said, until that move actually happens, we’ll treat it as simply speculation, but all the signs coming out of the reigning champions’ camp is that this is a team that understands that they need to bolster their ranks before the Playoffs, as their competition has only gotten stronger of late. After getting hammered by the Bulls over the weekend (117-99), James and Co. got back on track Monday Night against the Bucks, dispatching their Central Division counterparts in a hard-fought 102-95 victory at Quicken Loans Arena. The four-time MVP logged over thirty-seven minutes of play, totaling twenty-four points on 8-of-12 shooting (66.7%), along with ten rebounds, while the aforementioned Irving dropped a team-best twenty-five points on 10-of-20 shooting from the field (50.0%), with four rebounds, nine assists, and a pair of steals. Fortunately, the pair of All-Stars received quite a bit of help off the Bench as Kyle Korver (thirteen points) and Derrick Williams (fourteen points), with the latter now on his second 10-Day Contract, accounted for twenty-seven points as Lue only played eight players in the win. At the end of the day, the hosts managed to dump their doggedly competitive opponent primarily due to their proficiency from the Free-Throw Line, where the Cavaliers calmly knocked down 22-of-26 free-throws (84.6%) opposed to just 10-of-16 for the Bucks (62.5%), earning a twelve-point advantage, which in a close game can make all the difference.
Meanwhile, the team that everyone had long expected to be the most active at the Trade Deadline was the Celtics (38-22, 2nd in Eastern Conference), who were curiously silent as a number of other teams strengthened their numbers with the Postseason two months away. DeMarcus Cousins? Jimmy Butler? Paul George? Carmelo Anthony? (Buehler?) General Manager Danny Ainge relented from pulling the trigger on any deal that would possibly net Boston a superstar, despite the wealth of assets he has at his disposal. So with that said, this is the team that Brad Stevens and his Staff will be going to war with, for better or for worse, which probably depends on just how you look at them. Diminutive Point Guard Isaiah Thomas (29.6 PTS, 46.0% FG, 38.3% 3FG, 2.8 REB, 6.2 AST) is in the midst of a career defining campaign, ranking second in the league in scoring, while consistently taking over games in the Fourth Quarter. Veteran Power Forward Al Horford (14.1 PTS, 45.0% FG, 6.6 REB, 4.9 AST, 1.5 BLK) has proven to be a godsend for a team that lacked any real type of offensive prowess in the paint, while also proving to be quite the facilitator for others on the offensive end. The young supporting cast consisting of the likes of Jae Crowder (13.8 PTS, 46.4% FG, 40.0%, 3FG, 5.3 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.0 STL), Marcus Smart (10.7 PTS, 37.8% FG, 3.9 REB, 4.5 AST, 1.7 STL), Kelly Olynyk (9.1 PTS, 50.8% FG, 4.8 REB, 1.9 AST), Amir Johnson (6.3 PTS, 57.2% FG, 4.6 REB, 1.7 AST), and Jaylen Brown (6.1 PTS, 44.3% FG, 2.6 REB) has gone on to form one of the deepest rotations in the league, with twelve different players logging at least eleven minutes of action a night. Oh, and defensive dynamo Avery Bradley (17.4 PTS, 47.5% FG, 41.3% 3FG, 6.7 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.4 STL) finally made his long awaited return to the court in Monday’s embarrassing 114-98 loss to the Hawks, after missing eighteen consecutive games due to injury. Boston clearly looked like a team in need of a shot in the arm, as they were outscored 60-47 between the Second and Third Quarters, shooting a miserable 39.1% from the field, including 10-of-34 from beyond the arc (29.4%). Furthermore, they were manhandled on the glass (Minus-15), and proved to be very careless with the basketball, committing eighteen turnovers. The aforementioned Thomas couldn’t throw the ball into the ocean if he tried, shooting a dreadful 4-of-21 from the floor (19.0%), while Horford ended up with nearly as many fouls (five) as he did points (six). And that ladies and gentlemen, is the flipside of things for this team, who despite all their good qualities continue to be missing a piece or two to put them over the top. Sure, Thomas is electrifying, but his size can be a real detriment on the defensive end, which could be exploited without mercy throughout a lengthy series. Even with the addition of Horford, they’re still susceptible to being bullied in the paint, as Stevens’ charges have allowed 50.5% shooting inside the Three-Point Arc (22nd Overall), while getting outrebounded by an average margin of 3.7 boards a night, yielding 10.9 offensive rebounds to boot (26th Overall). Their youth too has at times betrayed them, as they often lack the requisite discipline to defend without fouling, which is in stark contrast from their opponent tonight; Boston has committed 20.5 personal fouls (20th Overall), leading to 25.0 free-throw attempts for the opposition (26th Overall). Their struggles on the defensive end were on display in both of their previous meetings with the Cavaliers, which saw the Celtics fall in defeat on both occasions; Cleveland shredded them for a whopping 126.0 points on 50.3% shooting from the field, including 38.9% from downtown, while attempting a staggering 35.0 free-throws, knocking down 28.0 of them. Oh, and Stevens’ troops didn’t fare much better on the glass, as LeBron and Co. outrebounded them by an average of 10.0 boards in the two contests. At the end of the day, perhaps that’s why Ainge didn’t make a deal, for none of those players that we mentioned earlier would have fixed this team’s weaknesses given what the Front Office would have had to sacrifice in the transaction. Mortgaging the future for a boost in the present when said boost likely won’t get you over the hump anyway is the kind of business that gets executives fired, which Ainge no doubt knows. In that regard, they must have all been lateral moves in the end, and lateral moves, folks, don’t get the job done in today’s NBA.