The Search For A Challenger To The Cavs Continues
There were at least rumblings that the NBA’s Eastern Conference playoffs might have some drama in them. The Boston Celtics had moved past the Cleveland Cavaliers for the 1-seed and when the teams met in a highly anticipated game last night in Boston Garden, the Celtics were installed as a (-4) favorite. By night’s end, it was apparent that if LeBron James and the Cavs are going to be challenged for supremacy in the East, it will have to come from somewhere else.
Boston lost 114-91 and was never in the game from the second quarter on. Defensively, the Celtics were awful, repeatedly allowing uncontested drives to the hoop. They were crushed on the glass, losing rebounding by a decisive 51-38 margin. The fact the Celtics have weaknesses that are debilitating to a legitimate Finals contender were made apparent for the ESPN audience.
The primary weakness is a lack of physical play inside. The addition of Al Horford has been great for this team, but Horford plays better when he mixes it up both inside and out. He got seven rebounds last night, which isn’t bad, but three Cleveland players had more. When Boston’s little two-guard Avery Bradley is healthy, he consistently leads this team in rebounding and last night his seven boards matched Horford.
That’s a problem when it comes to matching up with anybody inside, but particularly so against Cleveland. Boston wins by spreading the floor for their outstanding point guard Isiah Thomas. It’s a formula that has lifted him into the second tier of teams in the NBA. But unless you execute that formula as well as Golden State does, it won’t be enough to defeat Cleveland.
Finally, legitimate questions about whether this Celtics team was ready to meet the moment are only going to increase after last night. The NBA, more than any other league, rewards experience in the postseason. This young team in Boston is a clear upward trajectory, but that arc of improvement does not yet constitute a single playoff series victory. Is that the pedigree you want from a team to take down the King?
The Celtics get 9-2 odds to win the Eastern Conference, but it seems basketball handicappers are better off looking at either the Toronto Raptors or Washington Wizards. Both teams get a 10-1 price to at least reach the NBA Finals and both may be better suited than Boston to win in the playoffs.
This is particularly true of Toronto. They have the interior presence the Celtics lack, thanks for Jonas Valanciunas. The Raptors are a vastly better rebounding team than Boston, ranking eighth in rebound rate (the percentage of available rebounds collected) while the Celtics are 26th. And Toronto has experience, reaching the conference finals last year and extending Cleveland to six games.
Keep in mind, I’m not necessarily saying I think Toronto would beat Boston head-to-head or that the Celtics aren’t the second-best team in the East. What I am saying is that if you narrow the focus exclusively to looking at someone who can beat Cleveland, we have to give the Raptors a better chance than the Celtics. Toronto’s personnel and experience are better suited and the price is twice as nice.