Everyone predicted we would get here last fall. But … how the heck did we get here?
The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers will meet in the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals for the second consecutive consecutive season — but under wildly different circumstances.
Boston somehow overcame losing two All-Stars — Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving — to knock off the Milwaukee Bucks and skate past the Philadelphia 76ers as the rare No. 2 seed underdog. The Cavs completely overhauled their roster twice, stumbled to the No. 4 seed, then silenced haters by blowing the doors off the top-seeded Toronto Raptors.
There is, of course, one constant: Boston’s arch nemesis, LeBron James, who has won his last four playoff series against the C’s.
While fate has denied us a Kyrie-LeBron showdown, this still should be a fascinating series. Does head coach Brad Stevens have one more masterpiece in him? Do budding stars Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier really have what it takes to dethrone the King? Or will James continue his postseason dominance and advance to his eighth(!) consecutive NBA Finals?
Let’s break it down, shall we?
TALE OF THE TAPE
Cleveland 2-1; +11 point differential
Celtics: Gordon Hayward (out for season), Kyrie Irving (out for season), Daniel Theis (out for season), Shane Larkin (out indefinitely)
Projected starting lineups
Celtics: PG Terry Rozier, SG Jaylen Brown, SF Jayson Tatum, PF Al Horford, C Aron Baynes
Cavs: PG George Hill, SG J.R. Smith, SF Kyle Korver, PF LeBron James, C Kevin Love
CELTICS’ KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Shut down James’ supporting cast — starting with Kevin Love. LeBron is playing at a ridiculously high level right now. He’ll win games on his own — it’s inevitable. But if the C’s can keep the burden entirely on James’ shoulders, they’ll have a fighting chance.
Love is LeBron’s most important sidekick, and his 75 points in the Cavs’ final three games against Toronto was a big reason why they dominated the series. James is at his best when Love, Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith are spacing the floor and knocking down open shots. Boston must defend the 3-point line well — like it did against the Sixers last series — and limit the impact of Cleveland’s role players, even if that means monster point totals for James.
2. Exploit the Cavs’ lack of depth. Cleveland acquired four players at the trade deadline — George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Rodney Hood — and none outside Hill have made any real impact this postseason. That’s where the Celtics have an edge: They have four legitimate scoring options in Tatum, Brown, Rozier and Al Horford, and two difference-makers off the bench in Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris. Expect Stevens to attack the Cavs’ weak links on offense and utilize a full rotation to make runs when James is out of the game.
CAVS’ KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Win the battle on the boards. The Celtics effectively spaced the floor against Philly but paid for it in the rebound department, where the Sixers consistently generated second chances. Tristan Thompson has killed Boston on the boards in the past, and if he and Love can win the battle in the trenches against Aron Baynes and Horford, you’d best believe James will make Boston pay.
2. Witness greatness. To state the obvious: The Cavs’ success all comes down to LeBron. The do-it-all superstar is averaging an insane 34.5 points, 9.4 rebounds and 9.0 assists this postseason and has willed Cleveland to victory several times with his late-game heroics. Even if Boston corrals his supporting cast, James will put his team back in the NBA Finals if he plays like he has against Toronto and Indiana.
Cavs in 6. The Celtics are 6-0 at home in the playoffs and have home-court advantage. They’ve been counted out all postseason and have proven the doubters wrong at every turn. They have the confidence and cohesion to make this a series. But Boston’s magical run stops at the king’s doorstep. James will go off at TD Garden to steal a game on the road, and Cleveland will take care of business in its own building to set up Cavs-Warriors Part IV.
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images