BOSTON — The Eastern Conference finals are set. The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers will battle it out with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.
The Celtics narrowly edged out the Cavaliers for the top seed in the East in the 2017 NBA playoffs, but Boston has a tall task at hand in facing the defending champions. The Cavaliers have yet to lose a game this postseason, as they made quick work of both the Indiana Pacers and the Toronto Raptors.
Cleveland won the regular-season series against Boston, taking three of four head-to-head matchups. The Cavs will be well rested heading into Wednesday’s Game 1, as well, as they haven’t played since May 7.
The Celtics will have the luxury of owning home-court advantage in the series. The C’s have not lost at TD Garden since dropping the first two games in their first-round series against the Chicago Bulls. However, LeBron James and Co. are a completely different animal.
Here’s a quick preview for Celtics-Cavaliers:
How They Got Here
Celtics: 4-2 first-round series win over the Bulls, 4-3 second-round series win over the Washington Wizards
Cavaliers: 4-0 first-round series win over the Pacers, 4-0 second-round series win over the Raptors
Key for Celtics: Expose Kyrie Irving
Irving is one of the most skilled offensive players in the league, but his defensive abilities are lacking. Ironically enough, this will be the most favorable matchup for Isaiah Thomas so far in the postseason, as Rajon Rondo and John Wall both are better defenders than Irving.
With that said, Thomas should be able to find points in large spurts throughout the series. Sure, there will be times when he’ll be guarded by Cleveland’s top defenders in James and Iman Shumpert, but we imagine Irving will be called to duty a fair amount, as well.
The Celtics’ struggles typically occur when Thomas is having an off night offensively. If Boston can’t take advantage of Irving’s defensive shortcomings, the series could be over in short order.
Key for Cavaliers: Tristan Thompson
The Celtics are a good team in many facets of the game, but rebounding is not one of them. Robin Lopez torched Boson on the glass in the opening round, and Wizards big man Marcin Gortat pulled down boards with ease at times in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Unfortunately for Boston, its toughest task in the interior is on the horizon.
Thompson has become one of the better rebounders in the league. Though he’s only 6-foot-9, the Cavs forward is relentless on the glass, and his positioning typically makes up for his lack of size. The C’s don’t have the personnel to totally slow down Thompson, which the Cavaliers could take full advantage of.
Between the freight train that is James and Irving’s uncanny ability to finish at the basket, Cleveland is at its best when running in transition. If Thompson is able to pull down boards at will and get the ball in the hands of the Cavaliers’ playmakers, Boston could be left scratching its head.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 6
The Celtics have shown flashes of brilliance through their first two playoff series, but they don’t have LeBron James. The three-time NBA champion has showcased an ability to take his game to another level on the biggest stage, and he’s expected to do the same against Boston.
The NBA playoffs are driven by superstars, and there isn’t much debate over which team has more star power. Between James, Irving and Kevin Love, it will be supremely difficult for the Celtics to limit all three, let alone the rest of Cleveland’s skilled roster.
The 3-pointer could help the Celtics extend the series. The C’s have had a few games this postseason in which they shot the lights out and overwhelmed their opponent from beyond the arc. But still, it would be hard to imagine Boston overcoming Cleveland.
All things considered, we think the Cavs will be headed to their third straight NBA Finals.
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images