There was an unsettling layer to the Boston Celtics’ second-round NBA playoff series against the Washington Wizards, which culminated with an epic Game 7 won by the guys in green.
While the series featured several swings in momentum and a whole bunch of bad blood, making for an entertaining showdown, there also was the reality that whichever team emerged victorious would have to face the Cleveland Cavaliers, who long have been considered the heavy favorites in the Eastern Conference.
Like, gargantuan favorites.
The Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors have been on a collision course all season, and now only two teams — the Celtics and San Antonio Spurs — stand in the way of them squaring off in the NBA Finals for the third consecutive year. Few experts and fans (outside of some die-hard C’s supporters) are giving Boston any chance whatsoever against Cleveland, though. The Cavs simply are too good.
Or are they?
Cleveland, which is 8-0 in the playoffs, has been the beast of the East all season — the last three seasons, really — despite Boston earning the conference’s No. 1 seed. But the Celtics are a scrappy bunch that seems to relish the underdog role.
It sounds crazy. And maybe it is crazy. But screw it, let’s get crazy. Here are four things the Celtics can do to dethrone the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals.
SHARE THE ROCK
Sure, this is the most basic basketball concept ever. You’re taught to pass the ball to an open man literally the first time you step foot on a court. But that doesn’t mean we should throw it out the window, especially when the matchup and the numbers suggest the Celtics could benefit from getting everyone involved in the offense rather than relying on Isaiah Thomas to drop 50 points on any given night.
The C’s have been the NBA’s best passing team this postseason by several measures, with Thomas’ evolution as a distributor — in addition to a scorer — being a huge reason why. Boston leads all playoff teams with 27.3 assists per game, 309.8 passes per game and 67.8 points from assists per game. The C’s, who aren’t shy about pulling the trigger, also are tops in catch-and-shoot points per game with 34.2.
The Celtics should lean heavily on Thomas. He’s not only their best offensive player. He also could find himself matched up against Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving, who’s an underwhelming defender. But Thomas’ ability to create offense for others will be just as important as his ability to put the ball in the hoop, as Cleveland’s aggressive defense sometimes exposes itself to open looks.
According to FOXSports.com’s Dieter Kurtenbach, the Celtics averaged 11.8 open (defender within 4-6 feet) and 15.5 wide-open (no defender within 6 feet) 3-pointers per game in four matchups against the Cavaliers during the regular season — a very high number that could bode well for Boston provided its capable shooters take advantage of their opportunities.
FEED AL HORFORD
On the surface, the idea of “feeding” one player seems counterintuitive to the whole “share the rock” philosophy, which implies that everyone should be fed accordingly. But the Celtics should be especially proactive when it comes to getting Horford involved. He’s been an absolute stud this postseason, and his ability to stretch the floor has the potential to offset a matchup advantage the Cavs typically can exploit with Kevin Love and, to a lesser degree, Channing Frye.
Horford not only can score inside and outside. He’s also averaging 5.8 assists per game this postseason, highlighting his solid court vision and skillful passing (both unique traits for a man of his size). The Celtics could look to take advantage of Irving’s defensive shortcomings at the point, but they also shouldn’t be afraid to put the ball in Horford’s hands and take it from there, as the 6-foot-10 forward has proven more than capable of making plays and Love isn’t exactly an all-world defender. A heavy dose of pick-and-rolls featuring Thomas and Horford should put the Celtics in a good place offensively.
THROW EVERYTHING AT ‘EM DEFENSIVELY
One of the Celtics’ biggest strengths is their defensive versatility, particularly along the perimeter, where they have several players who can match up with opposing teams’ stars. Slowing Irving and LeBron James will be a handful, obviously, but coach Brad Stevens can (and should) be creative in how he deploys Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder and even rookie Jaylen Brown. The Celtics’ D has flummoxed teams in the past, and an abundance of looks over the course of a best-of-seven series could make life extremely difficult for Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue’s bunch.
MAKE LEBRON SINK FREE THROWS
We’re not suggesting the Celtics go full-fledged Hack-a-Bron or anything like that. James is a career 74.5 percent free-throw shooter in the regular season, and he’s shooting 72.8 percent from the charity stripe this postseason. It’s not as if he’s inept when you put him on the line. But James shot a career-worst 67.4 percent from the free-throw line during this past regular season, and when you’re talking about slowing down the best player on the planet, sometimes you need to think somewhat unconventionally.
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images