Thursday, May 6, 2010 Updated: May 7, 1:14 PM ET
Five things to watch: Celtics-Cavs
By Chris Forsberg ESPNBoston.com
As the Celtics and Cavaliers prepare to tip off in Friday's Game 3 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series at the TD Garden, here are five key areas to watch:
1. Injuries, Part I
After running away with Game 2 in Cleveland on Monday, the Celtics initially lamented three full days off before Game 3, noting that the team with momentum always wants to get back on the court immediately.
But it turned out to be a fortuitous break. Both Kevin Garnett (strained right midfoot) and Kendrick Perkins (strained right knee) woke up Tuesday with what Paul Pierce described as "knickknack" injuries and needed some additional treatment and rest.
Was it enough?
The importance of Perkins and Garnett in this series cannot be understated. Offensively, the Celtics are hell-bent on establishing Garnett in the post, identifying a favorable matchup with him against Antawn Jamison (more on that later). Defensively, Perkins is bullying Shaquille O'Neal away from the basket as the Cavaliers desperately attempt to establish Shaq in the post.
Perkins has been outstanding this entire postseason, making life miserable for opposing bigs as they try to set up shop around the basket. The question is whether that strained knee can hold against the grind of battling O'Neal.
"[Perkins has] been great," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "That's no piece of cake. Shaq's a bear; he's tough. And they're going to him more, really trying to establish. He's a force, because you don't want to commit that double-team that opens up everything, and they know that. They're really trying to pound it. Perk and Baby, they're both standing in there and taking the foul. That's a lot of brute force."
It hasn't been a good postseason for any O'Neal going up against Perkins. Boston's center previously made Jermaine O'Neal look like the worst use of $23 million in playoff history as he dominated Miami's big man in Boston's opening-round triumph over the Heat. Perkins said he's simply doing more of the same against Shaq.
"[The key is to] meet him early," Perkins said. "The biggest thing with Shaq is don't let him get deep post-ups, try to fight him as much as you can, and make him score over the top. No dunks, no layups. That's the game plan."
As Rivers noted, the real key is how Perkins' ability to play one-on-one with an opposing big man prevents Boston from having to double-team, and that keeps the Celtics from scrambling to guard Cleveland's other weapons, particularly LeBron James.
Speaking of James
2. Injuries, Part II
Before this series, the only elbow that mattered between the Celtics and Cavaliers was the one Ray Allen jabbed into Anderson Varejao's groin last April (earning a suspension in the process for the typically mild-mannered Allen).
Now, it seems like we can't go an hour without a new report on LeBron James and his ailing elbow.
While James certainly hasn't been his otherworldly self this postseason, there's no indication the injury is any more serious than the strain and bone bruise that the first MRI -- and the only one, according to the Cavaliers -- James had on the elbow revealed.
In fact, in the absence of any further evidence, you might actually have to concede that James' struggles are due in large part to Boston's defense. That's the way Pierce sees it, as he takes umbrage with the fact that some point to the elbow whenever James doesn't dominate.
"I think it's combination of our team defense and adjustments we're making," Pierce said. "I really don't know what's going on in his body or anything, but I guarantee our defense has something to do with it."
The bigger problem for the Cavaliers right now might be Varejao's balky back. He left in the second half of Game 2 with spasms and did not return.
While it sounds like he'll be able to play Friday, the Cavaliers need the man dubbed "Wild Thing" at full throttle, as he is Cleveland's single-biggest advantage in this series. The Celtics simply cannot match his energy and ability to dominate the glass (though Glen Davis and his benchmates can certainly limit that damage by elevating their play).
Garnett scored 18 points in the Celtics' Game 2 win.
3. KG digging in on the post
Since arriving in Boston in 2007, Garnett has attempted 20 or more shots in just 16 games between regular-season and postseason play. What's more, he's never hoisted more than 23 shots in a game.
During Monday's Game 2, even after suffering the midfoot injury late in the second quarter when Perkins stepped on his foot, Garnett put up 21 shots.
Clearly the Celtics are making a concerted effort to exploit him inside. And Rivers isn't hiding from the fact that the Green like the matchup against Jamison.
"We want Kevin to be more aggressive," Rivers said. "I told him 20 [shots] is not enough. We want 25. The more aggressive he is, even when he doesn't even shoot the ball, the more we can go to him and good things happen. He makes the other team make a decision, whether to go 1-on-1, to trap him, or to go front-and-back. It allows us to stretch our offense.
"When Kevin is involved, he's so pass-conscious. Even in [Thursday's] practice, guys were yelling at him, 'Shoot the ball!' That's what we gotta keep in his mind."
The lone trouble is that Garnett often seemed rushed around the basket in the first two games and got blocked numerous times when double teams collapsed on him. Boston's outside shooters -- particularly Pierce, who has struggled at the start of the series -- need to hit outside jumpers when the ball is kicked out to them, thereby loosening up the paint for Garnett.
Garnett's ability to put up points is a good thing for Boston. When he's scored more than 25 points in a postseason game, the Celtics are 5-1 since he joined the team in 2007.
4. C's must avoid foul troubles
Rivers has tensed up a bit whenever the subject of fouls has come up this week. He doesn't need to be reminded of the numbers, including how Boston has committed 56 fouls compared to Cleveland's 33 through two games.
As the series shifts to Boston, the urban legend that the home team gets more calls will be severely tested. Rivers can't say anything about the officials in fear of the $35,000 bills being FedExed like mad from league headquarters, but he knows there's one way to change those numbers.
"We have to be more aggressive offensively," Rivers said. "We have to attack more. We have to do a better job of moving our feet defensively, too, but we have to attack more on offense. It's something where, as well as we've played, we're low on free-throw attempts. We have to get to the line more."
After Wednesday's practice, Rivers was asked whether he had every heard of a team going 19 minutes, 26 seconds straight without a team foul, as the Cavaliers did in Game 2, including not being whistled for a single team infraction during the second quarter.
"Nope," Rivers said with a sly smile. Then someone reminded him that he actually had, since he was a part of Game 2, to which he chuckled and added, "I guess I have."
5. Protect home court
This one's simple: The Celtics were a pathetic 24-17 at the TD Garden during the regular season this year. They absolutely have to be better in the postseason or they have no chance of going far.
On the more positive side, Boston is 3-0 at the Garden so far this postseason, displaying the type of suffocating defense that was their hallmark there in 2008.
"You gotta make your own momentum, and you gotta take care of home court," Pierce said, noting that the two will go together for Boston. If the Celtics should take care of business on their home floor this weekend, suddenly they'd be up 3-1 in a series in which they were pretty much written off after a Game 1 loss in Cleveland.
When the Celtics beat the Cavaliers in the 2008 conference semifinals, they didn't win a single road game. With the homecourt advantage gained during the regular season, Boston took care of business four times on Causeway Street, and that was enough to advance.
Since Cleveland was the top seed in the East this year, Boston knew it wouldn't be quite as easy. But after stealing Game 2 on the road, suddenly it is as simple as 2008: Win all the home games and win the series.
But Boston is taking nothing for granted, particularly after two wars with Cleveland at the Garden during the regular season, including one in which Mo Williams almost single-handedly shot his team to victory.
"They came in here and beat us before," Rasheed Wallace said. "We can't really hang our hat on that -- 'Oh, we're at home now.' So we're not going to stop. We gotta go out there and do it."
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.