Matchup with Celtics Offers Cavs Chance to Do More Than Just Advance in Playoffs

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterApril 21, 2015

Tony Dejak/AP Images

CLEVELAND — Timofey Mozgov tries to oblige when he's asked a question in English, enough that you get the sense he has a winning personality. Still, it's fairly common for something to get lost in translation. So it was after the Cavaliers, save for a 14-0 third quarter Boston run, cruised to an expected 113-100 victory in Game 1 of the teams' mismatched first-round series. 

Somehow, a question about the differences between his current role and his role during his only other playoff experienceseven games, five as a starter, all in 2012 with the Denver Nuggetscaused the Russian-born center to reach for a classic athlete cliche about how he always wants to play but will never complain about a coaching decision. So, to save the exchange, I thought it better to plow down that path, noting, after a game in which he had played just 23 minutes, that there will be other series in which David Blatt will surely feel a greater need for his size and physicality. 

"You know, you know, we got Boston next game," Mozgov said, smiling. "That's all I think about."

Then, he extended his fist for a gentle bump, just to make sure he was understood. 

And he was. 

Credit him for becoming fluent in American jockspeak. 

The rest of us, however, aren't bound by any such restraint, any fear of being seen as disrespectful. Neither are the oddsmakers, some of whom took this series off their books because it was so lopsided even prior to the Cavaliers taking the first game. The Celtics are nearly certain to be a power in the Eastern Conference in the next couple of years, considering Danny Ainge's stash of draft assets, one he can deploy entirely for young talent or, more likely, some combination of prospects and established stars, the way he did when he assembled the 2008 championship team by acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. 

But for now?

No chance.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Not without a single player, with the possible exception of Isaiah Thomas, the second-place finisher in Sixth Man of the Year balloting, who would be any better than a key reserve on a current NBA contender. Not when the guy who led them in minutes Sunday (Evan Turner) was a minus-20.3 per 100 possessions for the Pacers last postseason. Not when their starting center (Tyler Zeller) was a salary-cap casualty to clear the way for LeBron James. Not when they somehow gave up 113 points in Game 1 while the Cavaliers were making just 38.7 percent of their uncontested shots, and while J.R. Smith was playing one of his poorest games since his midseason acquisition (3-of-9, four fouls in just 19 minutes). 

So the question becomes: What do the Cavaliers get out of this series, beyond just four wins and a second-round matchup?

Plenty, actually. 

The reserves can get comfortable, allowing head coach David Blatt to feel more confident using them in later series.

No, it's not especially likely that Matthew Dellavedova will be putting any more defenders in the spin cycle, or that Shawn Marion will steal two passes in eight seconds (and 52 seconds of total action) or that James Jones will be dusting off his post-up fadeaways. 

"J.J. was actually a post-up player in college," LeBron James reminded everyone Monday. "He said he got to Indiana and Rick Carlisle told him, 'If you want to be on the floor, you need to go over there and shoot with Reggie [Miller].' So that's when he became a shooter." 

Even if it won't happen again over the next few weeks or months, the shot of confidencefor teammates of that role player and for that role player himselfnever hurts. It was fairly typical, in James' four seasons with the Heat, for role players to steal some of the show in the first round against an outclassed opponent; Jones, Norris Cole and Chris Andersen were all exceptional in the four-game sweep of Charlotte last season.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

It won't all carry over, not when those same role players, instead of facing even more limited players, are facing players of more skill or greater in later rounds. Still, it could be a plus going forward. 

So could the Cavaliers' need to corral the Celtics' ball movement. In a credit to their head coach, Brad Stevens, getting complete buy-in, the Celtics tied for the league's third-best assist percentagebehind only the Hawks and Warriorsdespite having a revolving roster the entire season, and no true point guard in the starting lineup for most of it. No, they're not Atlanta in that regard, but they're a better knockoff than you'll find in Times Square. 

Then there's the Thomas quandary, which Cleveland should welcome, because it needs to prep for the probing point guards it could see later, whether it's Derrick Rose in the next round, or Jeff Teague, John Wall or Kyle Lowry in the Eastern Conference Finals. 

The statline says Thomas was spectacular in Game 1 (22 points, five rebounds, 10 assists in 32 minutes), something the eye test at times confirmed, particularly when he was darting into the paint. 

The damage, however, wasn't actually that significant, at least according to SportVU, which tracks drives to the hoop. Thomas had nine of those in Game 1, but they resulted in only six points and none for anyone else. By comparison, Derrick Rose's 11 drives against the Bucks in Game 1 resulted in 10 points for himself and six points for others. 

So the Cavaliers actually did a reasonably good job of controlling him, even if the back line of the defense was most responsible. Mozgov, for instance, used his 16-inch height advantage to two-hand downward swat Thomas' five-footer in the third quarter, as if the ball were a bubble blown by a small child. In that case, the bubble even touched Thomas before it went out of bounds, leaving him angryand by that analogy, wet. 

Apr 19, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) drives between Cleveland Cavaliers center Timofey Mozgov (20) and forward Kevin Love (0) in the third quarter in game one of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Aren
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Even so, the Celtics' shortest man is by far their most explosive offensive threat, and James heaped praise on him Monday: "Our antennas need to be up when he comes into the game. His ability to make shots, to get into the lane, to get to the free-throw line, we should always pay attention to him when he comes into the game. He raises their level as far as their tempo. It goes up when he comes into the game. We have to be very, very conscious about when he enters the game."

That, of course, starts with the Cavaliers' point guard. While Kyrie Irving's defensive effort has been greatly improved this season, there are times when he underplays his assignment, or overpursuesas was the case in that clip posted above. Still, the Cavaliers have tried to quash that narrative, and both James and Blatt made sure to speak Monday of it being about more than one man.  

"It's showing [Thomas] a crowd," James said. "It's not the guy that's on him....It's not going to be easy. Anyone that's built low to the ground like that with that speed and strength is going to be hard to keep out of the lane. Now once he get into the lane you just try to show a crowd, show bodies, show hands and make him take tough shots."

James noted, correctly, that "we're not the only team he does it to. He's been doing it all year and that's why he's a sixth-man candidate. We just got to do a better job of not letting him see one-on-ones and [not let him have] those pull-up, transition threes and things of that nature. Pick him up a little bit more. But it's our second and third line of defense that has to guard him as well." 

That is undoubtedly so. 

But that second and third line of defense will have countless other concerns in a series against, say, Chicago or Atlanta, whether it's a diving Pau Gasol, a cutting Jimmy Butler, a popping Paul Millsap or Al Horford, or a lurking Kyle Korver. So sometimes, there won't becan't beso much help. And both Rose, when close to healthy, and Teague, whose drives led to 12.1 Hawks points per game during the regular season (fourth among players who played at least 50 games behind James Harden, Ty Lawson and Tyreke Evans), are better finishers and passers than Thomas in the paint. 

So this series gives Irving a chance to tighten up. 

It gives them all a chance to get by, get on...and get better. 

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.


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