Boston Celtics: Can They Overcome Their Eastern Conference Rivals?

Brendan TymanContributor IJanuary 15, 2010

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 28:  Kevin Garnett #5 of the Boston Celtics looks on against the Golden State Warriors during an NBA game at Oracle Arena on December 28, 2009 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics are rapidly approaching the halfway point in the 2009-'10 season. One question for the Celtics’ fans to ponder is: How does their team stack up against the elite teams in the Eastern Conference?

There are four squads (Boston, Cleveland, Orlando, and Atlanta) who are battling each other for the top spot in the conference.

Currently, the Celtics top the standings at 27-10 with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are 30-10.

Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

For Cleveland, it is all about LeBron James. Their offense runs through him. James is averaging 29.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 7.8 assists per game. When point guard Mo Williams (43.8 percent from three-point range) and Anthony Parker (47.5 percent) can hit their shots from the outside, James is even more dangerous because the opponents cannot focus solely on him. James is a 6'8" 260-pound freight train and he is the hardest player to stop when he drives to the basket. Oddly, James’ weakness is shooting the ball from beyond the arc; there he is shooting 35.8 percent, while at the free throw line, he is shooting 78.4 percent.  

The Celtics will use multiple people to guard James with a combination of guard, Ray Allen and forward, Paul Pierce. Off the bench, the Celtics will use a combination of guards Tony Allen and Marquis Daniels. They need to force James to become a shooter and not let him drive to the net. James is an overpowering player in the open court.

Boston needs to limit their turnovers. They cannot be coughing up the ball, especially if Cleveland has home-court advantage in the playoffs. When guards Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, and Delonte West cannot hit from the outside, their team is in trouble. Cleveland has not been getting much production from anyone other than James and Williams.

On the offensive end, the Celtics need to move the ball and set effective picks to free their shooters. Celtics center Kendrick Perkins can handle Cavs center Shaquille O’Neal (10 points and 10 rebounds in the season opener) both offensively and defensively, as proven in their previous meetings. Shaq, like the rest of his teammates, started off well, but he was shut down and was not a dominant force.

It really comes down to the matchup between James and the guards of both teams. If Boston can force James to the outside and keep him in front of them, they will have a great shot at winning. The Celtics can handle Cleveland, but it will be crucial for the Celtics to beat the Cavs at Quicken Loans Arena on Mar. 14.  

Celtics vs. Orlando Magic

The defending Eastern Conference champions will never win the NBA title until center Dwight Howard proves he can be Superman on the offensive end. Howard could be unstoppable if he develops a post game. The floor will then open for the outside game. This squad has four starters averaging double figures in scoring and three bench players who are scoring over nine points per contest. Vince Carter is the leading scorer and he is someone who can take the ball down the stretch in close games, which was their real weakness last season. Orlando did not have a player who could create shots in the closing minutes.

The most improved player in the league, Perkins, can defend Howard (two points in the Christmas Day game). If the Celtics can stay healthy, they have the ability to beat the Magic. They just need to shoot at a high percentage and take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. The Magic beat Boston in their first contest 83-78. These two squads are evenly matched and they have won on each other’s court. Paul Pierce can score easily on Carter, which he has done when Carter was with the Toronto Raptors and New Jersey Nets. Pierce did not play in the last game. The key will be who can shoot better from outside because both of these squads have not shot well in their two contests.

Celtics vs. Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks were looking like the best thing since low-calorie bread in November. Fortunately, championships are not won in November. Josh Smith has been playing inside more, and Jamal Crawford is giving Atlanta production off the bench, which is something they have not had over the past couple of seasons.

Joe Johnson has regressed in shooting threes since the 2007-’08 season. He shot 38 percent in 2007-’08 compared to 35 percent this season. Johnson is in a contract year, and he is among the best scorers in the league.

This group is young and hungry. They have players who are physical inside such as Smith and Al Horford. They have shooters outside in Mike Bibby, Johnson, Marvin Williams, and Crawford.

Horford and Smith present challenges for Celtics forwards Kevin Garnett, Perkins, and Rasheed Wallace because they are physical. Smith and Horford are scorers. This team rebounds very well (Atlanta out-rebounded Boston 47-29 in the first meeting). They have defeated the Celtics twice (including at TD Garden). The Celtics could have a lot of trouble because the Hawks are young, hungry, and they are more confident than in the previous years.

The Boston Celtics have displayed weaknesses on the glass and shooting from the outside. They have also dealt with injuries to several key players. Garnett (knee), Wallace, and  Daniels (thumb) are all out right now. Pierce had a minor procedure performed for his knee infection. Davis continues to suffer lingering effects from the surgery on his thumb and he injured his knee in the contest in Golden State on Dec. 28.

If it was not for their resourcefulness and clutch plays, the Celtics could easily have more L’s. In the matchup on Jan. 6 in Miami, the Celtics committed 25 turnovers and had 31 fewer possessions than the Heat on the road.

There is no way they had any business winning that game and it does not matter who was on the floor. Boston held Miami to just 41 percent from the field while the Celtics made the most of their opportunities (54 percent). This game was defined in the final seconds of regulation when Miami’s guard Dwayne Wade made a steal and put the Heat ahead 101-99 with 0.6 remaining. Heat guard Quentin Richardson did not guard the inbound play properly (he did not put his hands up). This allowed Celtics forward Paul Pierce to lob the alley-oop lay-in to Boston guard Rajon Rondo to send the contest into overtime.

The Celtics’ toughest opponents are youthful, energized teams such as the Atlanta Hawks. Johnson always seems to have his best performances against the Celtics. Perhaps this is because he still feels slighted over the Celtics trading him to the Phoenix Suns during his rookie season in February of 2002.

The Celts have defeated both the Cavs and Orlando on the road. Teams need to play a perfect game against the Celtics. Generally, Celtics opponents need to shoot at a high percentage to win and take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to them.  Atlanta shot 45 percent from the field and was able to drive inside forcing the Celtics to commit numerous fouls. Boston lost their poise with center Perkins getting hit for a technical foul.

While young and more athletic units have given the Celtics trouble, this team has the ability to beat anyone. However, they have beaten themselves up too much over the course of the season. Perkins (10 technical fouls) and reserve forward Rasheed Wallace (10) spend time complaining to the officials when they need to maintain their composure.

Any team can conquer the Celtics on any given night (just look at Philadelphia), but these three teams can give Boston the most trouble because the Celtics tend to lose focus at crucial times.  Unfortunately, when they do, they are easy prey for any smart, fast team.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.