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Cavs aren’t a one-man operation

Celtics can’t focus strictly on James

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / April 29, 2010

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Of all the problems the Cleveland Cavaliers present, LeBron James is far and away the most obvious one. He’s a bullet train with a basketball, but that’s nothing the Celtics haven’t known.

He has one MVP trophy already, and the league is very likely engraving another. He can score from anywhere on the floor — including, as Chicago’s Derrick Rose found out, a single step in from half-court. Trying to pick him up off a pick-and-roll is like trying to stop an avalanche. He’s made it so that he can be penciled in for 30, 8, and 8.

In a way, he’s a super-sized version of the superstar the Celtics just sent home for the summer. Miami’s Dwyane Wade can go on game-changing scoring binges that the Celtics have no choice but to absorb. But he can’t call for backup.

After trying to carry Cleveland to a title virtually by himself (and nearly doing it) in 2007, James now has complements — from Mo Williams and Shaquille O’Neal to Antawn Jamison and Anderson Varejao — that will make it difficult for the Celtics to focus on James alone when the teams meet in the second round of the playoffs starting Saturday.

“Obviously,’’ Kevin Garnett said, “it’s going to be similar to Miami with a better cast.’’

Garnett’s spot could be one of the biggest non-LeBron keys to the series. The Cavs picked up Jamison midseason in the Washington Wizards’ clearance sale, getting a power forward who will lure Garnett and the rest of the Boston forwards out to the perimeter.

Jamison is the type of player that haunted the Celtics throughout the season (see: Al Harrington, Andray Blatche, Rashard Lewis, Danilo Gallinari).

“The teams that have beaten us are the teams that have 4-men that can shoot the three,’’ Ray Allen said. “It takes Kevin away from the basket. It spreads our defense.’’

It’s also the type of player the Celtics will see in this series (and beyond, if they make it to the conference finals and play Lewis and the Orlando Magic).

Jamison averaged 19.3 points in Cleveland’s five-game first-round series against the Bulls, and he took nearly a third of his shots from 3-point range (7 of 23). He was spelled by Varejao, the sixth-year power forward who plays as if he’s never heard of inertia, making a living off hustle plays and feasting on the Celtics during the regular season by being quicker to get to open spots on the floor.

It’s a matchup problem for the Celtics’ big men, who will have to flip the switch from guarding the post to jumping out to the perimeter, chasing Cleveland’s pseudo-bigs.

Glen Davis put it this way: “Imagine if you had to bump Shaq [coming off a pick-and-roll] and then close out on Antawn Jamison when he just hit two in a row. Or with Rashard Lewis, you’ve got to bump Dwight [Howard] and get out to Rashard and force him left instead of right. You’re closing out to him and he can make you do anything he wants to, really.

“You’ve just got to have a feel for the game and just got to have a will to do a lot of things out there on guys like that.’’

The Celtics will have to use a combination of big men to deal with it, trying to find the right mix of quickness and length. Davis, who has found a niche taking offensive fouls, was just as confident in his ability to chase faster players at his position.

“I’m not that slow,’’ Davis said. “For me to be so big, I do pretty well moving my feet. So I have some advantages, but it’s difficult to guard those guys. Especially when they shoot the three and you have to close out.’’

In this series, length might be the most valuable asset of a certain 7-footer brought in by the Celtics last offseason. Allen said Rasheed Wallace “will be big later on in those series because he has that length and he can play those guys.’’

Wallace got up for guarding Dallas’s Dirk Nowitzki, and before Washington dealt Jamison to the Cavaliers, Wizards coach Flip Saunders (who coached Wallace in Detroit) joked that the one instance when he could guarantee Wallace would go to the post was when Jamison was on the floor.

The Celtics were the fourth-best team in the league at defending the 3-point line this season, holding teams to 34.2 percent. Cleveland was the best team in the Eastern Conference from long distance (38.1 percent), with marksmen up and down the bench.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers actually applauded the Cavaliers before the season not just for picking up O’Neal, but for adding shooters like Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon, who have combined for 140 threes this season. As dangerous as James is, the firing range around him poses just as much of a threat.

“That’s the one thing,’’ Allen said. “You’ve got to continue to keep that defensive core compact so they don’t see those gaps. Then we’ve got to get out to those shooters and hope to get a hand out on those shots.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

NBA PLAYOFFS
Celtics at Cavaliers
Game 1 Saturday, time TBA

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