Celtics-Cavs: Keys to the game

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Celtics-Cavs: Keys to the game

BOSTON Aside from the Boston Celtics' woeful start to the year, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been one of the bigger surprises in the Eastern Conference this season. Expected to be among the NBA's worst teams again, the Cavaliers (7-11) have been surprisingly competitive this season.

And like the Celtics, this Cleveland team consists of several players in their first season as teammates. The Cavs have just three players (Anthony Parker, Anderson Varejao and Daniel Gibson) who were on the roster at the start of last season. And the bulk of the new guys are rookies or second-year players. Only the Washington Wizards (8) have more first and second-year players than Cleveland, which has seven.

Fortunately for the C's, their collection of new faces is finally starting to play with the kind of consistency that Boston was anticipating at some point this season.

And that turnaround, not surprisingly, has come with the team's play defensively.

"That's the kind of team we are, a defensive team," C's Avery Bradley told CSNNE.com. "We know for us to be a really good team, we have to get it done on defense. We're starting to do that now."

Here are a few other things to keep tabs on as the Celtics try to extend their winning streak to five in a row and get over the .500 mark for only the second time this season:

WHAT TO LOOK FOR Lately, the Celtics have been saving their best for the second half of games. During their four-game winning streak, opponents are only scoring 35.5 points against them in the second half. For the Cavs, scoring in the second half has not been a problem. In their last four games three of which they lost the Cavs have averaged 51.3 points scored in the second half, which is actually higher than their 48.9 points per game average in the second half this season, which ranks among the league's best scoring teams. Still, with a scoring defense ranked 24th (out of 30 teams) in the NBA, all those second-half points have been just enough for them to remain competitive.

MATCHUP TO WATCH Kevin Garnett vs. Anderson Varejao: This is a good matchup between a couple of power forwards now being asked to play some center. Garnett has been a solid scoring option for the Celtics, but he has really been impressive in defending Dwight Howard and Indiana's Roy Hibbert. Varejao has been a key to the Cavs being better than expected. He has nine double-doubles this season, and he's averaging 9.4 points and 11.1 rebounds per game.

PLAYER TO WATCH The play of Antawn Jamison, maybe more than any other player on the floor tonight, will dictate the game's outcome. In Cleveland's seven wins, he's averaging 19.5 points while shooting 50.4 percent from the field. In their 11 losses, he's down to 12.5 points while connecting on just 34 percent of his shots.

STAT TO TRACK One of the keys to Boston's run of late has been their ability to make teams look for more one-on-one action, as opposed to getting the entire team involved. The C's are allowing teams an NBA-low 15.9 assists per game this season. Being able to continue disrupting the flow of opposing team's offenses, which is a big factor in the Celtics allowing so few assists, will once again play a role in their ability to win.

The pros and cons of Rafael Devers' promotion

The pros and cons of Rafael Devers' promotion

BOSTON — Rafael Devers is here and there’s a bundle of reasons to be excited. There’s reason, too, to be skeptical. 

Here is a look at the potential pros and cons, depending on Devers’ success. We’ll start with the good as the 20-year-old top prospect heads to the big leagues for the first time.

PROS

Infusion of energy

In the same way a trade can bring a boost of morale, so too can the promotion of a top prospect. It’s new blood walking through the door, either way. There’s help for a group of hitters — and by extension, pitchers lacking run support — who need to see a lift from the front office. Sox manager John Farrell previously acknowledged the sense of anticipation leading up to the trade deadline. The mood heading into Devers’ first game should be an exciting one.

Production

Virtually anything is better than what the Sox have had offensively at third base. Devers’ minor league hitting has been a spectacle. They wanted to see how he adjusted to Double-A pitching and he did so admirably. He walked into Triple-A and kept raking, with three hits in his final game. The ceiling is very high.

Trade leverage

Theoretically this applies to Devers directly. If the Sox wanted to deal him, he’d be worth more as a big leaguer with some success. But if we believe everything the Sox say, they don’t want to trade him. They’d be crazy to do so. Leverage, then, comes in another form. Those teams that the Sox have talked to about third-base help, or hitting help, in general now get a message from the Sox of “Hey, we don’t need you.” Potentially, any way.

Feet wet for the future

A taste isn’t always a good thing, but it often is. One way or another, the Red Sox have to hope that Devers’ first stint in the big leagues lays the groundwork for the future. Growing pains might be inevitable but in some way, the sooner he can go through them, the better. If he comes off the bench at times, that’ll be a new experience he can have under his belt, although you wouldn’t expect he’ll need that skill too much early in his career.

Prospects saved, or repurposed

It’d still be a stunner if the Sox don’t make a trade at the deadline. It just wouldn’t be the Dombrowski way to stay idle. But Devers’ arrival might allow for a different allocation of resources. Whatever prospects the Sox were willing to put toward a third-base upgrade could go toward another bat, or a reliever or both.

CONS

Uncertainty

This is the biggest concern. Even if Devers rakes for the first week and thereby convinces the Red Sox they don’t need to trade for a third baseman, what does one week really tell them? A month isn’t really enough, either, but it would have been a lot better. (There is always the possibility of a trade in August.) Devers is still missing what the position has been missing all along — a known quantity. Someone with a major league track record, someone who can provide as much certainty as can reasonably be found.

Public about-face

Promoting Devers to the majors for the purposes of evaluation ahead of the non-waiver trade deadline would have been wiser at the start of July. He was raking after two months at Portland. It’s clear the Sox didn’t intend to move Devers with this kind of speed. They’ve adjusted on the fly, which is necessary sometimes, but Dombrowski said on July 14 — the day Devers was moved to Triple-A — that "I don't want to put it on his back that we're counting on him in a pennant race.” Didn’t take long for that to change.

Defense

Devers made four errors in 12 games at Pawtucket and has 16 in 72 games between there and Portland. One scout who has seen Devers doesn’t think he’s ready defensively yet. From there, it’s worth noting the context at this position: how chaotic third base has been for the Sox this season. Basic plays were not made for a time, and that’s how Deven Marrero ended up with a job. A drop off in defense is fine, but repeated errors on routine plays won’t work, particularly at a position where the Sox have already lived those woes.

Development

It’s a natural worry for a 20-year-old kid: if he doesn’t do well, can he handle it mentally? He wouldn’t be in the big leagues if the Sox didn’t think so. At the same time, you run the risk of a slow-down for a player who was chugging right along. Devers is poised to share time for now, which means he may well come off the bench, something he hasn’t had to do.

Loss of leverage

If Devers looks bad for a week — as in, truly overmatched — the Sox aren’t going to have any better position for a trade for an established infielder or bat. If anything, the potential trade partner would gain ground.