Lackey Dominates as Sox Defeat Angels

The Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim continued their four-game series Wednesday night at Fenway. The pitching match-up featured John Lackey facing off against his former team and former Red Sox Joel Pineiro. The Red Sox struck for two runs, one in the second and one in the fourth, before the Angels were able to respond in the fifth inning. Another Boston run in the eighth put the lead back up to two runs, and the bullpen did its job. The final score: Red Sox 3, Angels 1.

Red Sox at the Plate

The two stars of tonight’s game were Adrian Beltre and David Ortiz, the latter of whom continues to make definite strides towards returning to what he was in previous seasons. Both players homered tonight, with Ortiz homering in the fourth and Beltre in the eighth. Beltre’s shot, to straight-away center field, capped off an excellent evening that saw him go 3-4 with two RBIs (he also drove in a run in the second inning). He is currently batting .340 and has proven to be an offensive presence in Boston’s lineup. Ortiz, for his part, went 2-3 with a walk. He’ll bring his average above the Mendoza line yet. The other Boston player to have a good night was Dustin Pedroia, who also went 2-3 with a walk. The Red Sox also squandered several golden opportunities. They lined into two double plays and left nine men on base. This somewhat nullified the 11 hits they belted out. It should also be noted that every Red Sox starter reached base at least once, either through a hit or a walk. The patient at-bats we’ve seen in seasons past may finally be returning to this team. They are necessary to compete in the American League East and against powerhouse teams like the Yankees and Rays. While this was not the offensive explosion we’ve seen from the Red Sox on occasion this season, it was enough to win the game.

Red Sox on the Mound

John Lackey was masterful tonight. Over his seven innings of work he allowed a mere two hits. He struck out four, walked two, and allowed just a single earned run: a home run to nine-hole hitter Brandon Wood. He out-dueled Joel Pineiro and earned the win. The bullpen, not being required for more than two innings of work, was just as masterful as the starter was. Daniel Bard was perfect in the eighth, striking out two while lowering his ERA to 2.70. Jonathan Papelbon, meanwhile, closed the game with a perfect ninth inning of work, picking up his eighth save in the process. The re-institution of his split-fingered fastball into his pitching repertoire has proven to be a wise decision. His walks are down, he is pitching more economically, and he is racking up the saves. Bard and Papelbon have established themselves as the backbone of the Red Sox bullpen. Now it’s up to the other pitchers to step up and prove themselves to be just as reliable.

Looking Ahead

The Red Sox will face the Angels one more time, and then the Yankees come to town for a weekend series. While the Red Sox are playing well, they will need to bring their game to another level if they want to defeat the Yankees and get back in the race for the division (they are currently 6 games back from the Rays, 5.5 from the Yankees). Their hitting is starting to come around, as is their starting pitching. However, against the Yankees you have to play flawlessly. And the Red Sox still have a tremendous flaw in their bullpen. The Yankees grind out at-bats, same as the Red Sox. This means Boston’s starters will see their pitch-counts rise quicker than expected, leading to bullpen substitutions early and often. The bullpen will be challenged to rise to the occasion and take on the fearsome Yankees hitters in order to keep the Red Sox in games and/or hold onto leads. Whether they can do so remains to be seen.

Rondo, Allen Combine to Pull Celtics Even With Cleveland

The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers faced off for the second game in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference Semifinals series. The first game saw the Celtics build a lead of eleven, only to relinquish it in the third quarter due to poor bench play and cold shooting in the second half. Tonight, there would be no such collapse. The Celtics played hard for three quarters, building up a lead of 23 by the end of the third quarter. While the Cavaliers fought back in the fourth, capitalizing on a series of lazy Boston turnovers, they never got closer than within 10 points from the Celtics. In the end, solid play from the starters and a resurgent bench led by Rasheed Wallace powered Boston to a 104-86 victory, evening the series at one win apiece.

The Celtics on Offense

This game saw the return of vintage Boston offense: even distribution, lots of passing, and a mix of perimeter (nine made three-pointers) and paint scoring (40 points in the paint). Six players scored in double-digits tonight: all five starters, plus Rasheed Wallace (17 points off the bench, one of his best games of the season). The two stand-out players of the night were Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. Ray Allen put up 22 points to lead all Boston scorers. Rajon Rondo, meanwhile, put up 13, but contributed far more noticeably with his passing. Rondo passed for 19 assists against Cleveland, tying a Boston record for most assists in a single playoff game. He continues to be the stabilizer for this team, anchoring the offense and overseeing the plays. Kevin Garnett also put up a double-double, scoring 18 and rebounding 10.

Not to be overlooked tonight was the play of the bench. Rasheed Wallace’s performance aside, Boston’s bench put up a total of 27 points. They were able to score enough to keep the lead or build on it when Boston chose to rest its starters. Their combined +/- for the game was +21, whereas Cleveland’s bench, which also scored 27 points, combined for only a -8.

The Celtics on Defense

The Celtics did an excellent job of containing LeBron James tonight, holding him to just 24 points, most of which were scored either in the paint or from the free-throw line (10). They fouled when necessary and played excellent trap defense. They stayed within their rotations and forced the Cavaliers to shoot mostly from the outside. This does not mean they gave up many treys however, as Cleveland shot just four times successfully from behind the line. Most importantly, the Celtics dominated on the boards. They out-rebounded the Cavaliers on both ends of the court, winning the offensive rebounds battle 7-6 and the defensive rebounds battle 36-26. This meant that for the most part Cleveland was only getting one look at the basket each possession, which went a long way towards limiting their scoring.

Heading Back to Boston

The Celtics head back to Boston having won once and led for the other game. They should be returning home with plenty of confidence. As long as the shooting stays hot and the defense continues its intensity, the Celtics can absolutely win this series. It will take lots of grit to accomplish this, as this will be a hard-fought, hard-fouling series the entire way through. The refs seemed content to allow the teams to play tonight, and there’s no reason to expect things to be any different at the TD Garden. The Celtics split the series on the road, but Cleveland has already won once at Boston this season. While Boston winning both games at home is possible, it is not likely. Most likely this series will go seven games. We should expect nothing less from two of the best teams in the NBA.

So, What Did We Learn?

OK, first of all, that was a great basketball game. Lead changes, good defense, hard fouls, everything a basketball fan could want in a playoff game could be found in Saturday night’s game between the Cavaliers and the Celtics. While the game did not go Boston’s way (101-93 Cleveland) it was a still an extremely entertaining game to watch. And there was a lot we could take away from this game that will help us predict what we might see during this series.

First off: Rajon Rondo. 27 points, 12 assists, 12-14 from the free-throw line. While we can’t exactly call him a poor regular season player, he is quickly emerging as an elite playoff player. Since last year he has played out of his mind for every playoff series he has been in, and he keeps getting better. Considering the defensive capabilities of Cleveland, this might have been the best playoff game we’ve seen from Rondo yet. And no one can cover him without triple-teaming and/or fouling him. Expect great things from him this series. He could easily be the best player on the Celtics for this postseason. A double-double average for the series would not surprise me in the least.

On the other side of things, we have Paul Pierce: just 13 points, second-worst among the starters. He started strong, but foul trouble forced him to the bench for much of this game. I believe this took him out of his shooting rhythm, which might explain why his shooting was so cold for the second half. The problem is that he’s going to be covering LeBron James for most of this series. That means he’s gonna be playing with fouls for most of this series. If he can’t get hot in limited minutes, he’s going to be an offensive liability, as he was tonight in the second half.

We’re also seeing that this is going to be an extremely physical match-up with lots of fouls. There were 42 fouls called during this game, leading to 52 free-throws. Both of these teams are good at double-teaming, trapping, and fouling hard to prevent baskets. This means lots of contact. Lots of fouls means both teams are going to be going to their bench more often than they’d like, and this brings me to my next point. Tonight, Cleveland had the far superior bench. Boston’s bench put up a mere 12 points, whereas Cleveland’s bench put up 26 points. Boston’s bench lacks the shooters to hang with Cleveland’s bench, and this poses a real problem. The Celtics starters can build leads, but if the bench can’t score those leads are going to be tough to maintain, especially against a team that shoots as well as Cleveland does.

At halftime, the Celtics were up by 11 points. After three quarters, they were down by one. This lies almost entirely at the feet of the bench. Someone must come off the bench and become the offensive presence the Celtics need. Glen Davis is the best we have, but foul trouble kept him out of much of this game. I think he was put in too early in the game and started racking up fouls too quickly, but that’s just one of several questionable decisions Doc Rivers made during this game. In my opinion, Doc was somewhat out-coached during the second half, as he had no answer to the defensive changes the Cavaliers made at halftime. The Celtics got away from what was a successful first-half offensive game plan, and it’s up to the coach to pull the team back to it. It will be interesting to see what changes Doc Rivers makes for Game 2.

All in all, there is much we can draw from this game. The starters can hang with Cleveland’s, but the bench must step up if Boston wants to win, especially on the road. But any game where you have a lead is a game you can potentially win. The Celtics gave one away tonight in the second half. Expect them to come out fired up for their next game Monday night. Hopefully they will play harder and sustain their drive through four quarters instead of just two. I expect this series to head back to Boston tied at one win apiece. I expect this series to go seven games. And I expect the remaining six games to be just as exciting as this first one was. Bring it on!