The Cleveland Cavaliers have been eliminated from the Playoffs by the Boston Celtics and all anyone is talking about is what Lebron James may do as a free agent this summer. What has been overlooked is the outstanding team play of the Celtics which enabled them to knock off the squad with the best regular season record and the league MVP. What Lebron decides to do will certainly be big news and could shake up the landscape of the league for the next ten years, but with the Playoffs still underway I feel that the Celtics deserve a lot more credit than they are currently receiving in the press.
Before the series began, most pundits picked the Cavs as they felt their lineup matched up well with the Celtics. I felt the opposite, that the Celts match up favorably at most positions and also play a much more team focused style of basketball which revolves around ball movement, spacing and making the extra pass. That style of offense mixed with an aggressive defense led by two outstanding defensive players, Rondo and KG who are long, active and strong communicators, is a deadly combination which will usually prevail over seven games. The Celtics average a Playoff high 22.5 assists per game and 8.5 steals per game which shows their commitment to sharing the ball and playing aggressive team defense.
As good as Lebron is, he is still one man. If he struggles, the Cavs do too as old-man Shaq, Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams are just not big-time players who can carry a team on their shoulders through an entire game. The Celtics however have a long list of players with track records of playing big in the Playoffs from Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Rajon Rondo, Rasheed Wallace and even Glen Davis, who hit that big shot to beat Orlando in last years Playoffs. If one of those players is having a bad game or is shut out by the opposing defense, then another will step up his production to compensate.
Although Rondo was clearly the MVP of the series after averaging 20.6 ppg, 11.8 apg, 6.3 rpg and 1.8 spg, it was the consistent play of the entire roster which held the Lebron led (26.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg & 7.1 apg) Cavs at bay. Ray Allen was sniping consistently from long range, Paul Pierce was his usual bullish-self and Kevin Garnett took the defense apart with his silky smooth jump shot and ability to find cutters and open shooters from the post. Tony Allen played great defense on Lebron forcing him in to two games of 9 and 7 turnovers. Even Rasheed Wallace, after being criticized all season for his poor shot selection, found his range and finally decided to work inside using his array of unstoppable post moves instead of jacking bad three’s. The Celtics played like a team for all 6 games, sharing the ball, making the extra pass, helping and communicating on defense, setting strong screens to free up shooters and trusting in each other enough that no-one tried to step up and be the hero but played their part and relied more on a balanced team attack.
As the Bad Boy Pistons proved repeatedly against the Jordan led Bulls in the late 80’s, a balanced team will generally endure against a superstar surrounded by bit players. As Doc Rivers continuously reminded his team throughout the series, the Celtics didn’t need heroes to step up,but just had to play team basketball and have trust in each other. This proved to be the right approach and now the better team is moving on to the next round.