The Cavaliers constructed a championship contender in a matter of weeks this summer, while the Celtics are taking the scenic route toward their rebuild. Boston’s metamorphosis is undoubtedly ahead of schedule, but the team is still years away from being a title threat, operating under a completely different timeline than their first-round opponent.
Both squads were playoff teams by name, but only one had any intentions of doing anything with its berth. The Cavaliers are a finished product, all-in on contending this year. The Celtics are still in beta testing, just starting to discover their identity while managing to snag a playoff berth with a stripped-down roster.
Try as they might, scheme as they may, the undermanned Celtics simply had no answer for LeBron James and the Cavaliers in their first-round matchup. While they were able to compete for spurts, the Cavs posed too severe of a challenge. Cleveland capped a four-game sweep with a 101-93 rout in Boston on Sunday, marking an important first step for the Cavaliers and the final one for the Celtics.
[daily_cut.NBA]But Cleveland’s victory in Game 4 didn’t come without a steep price. Depending on how long it takes for the Bulls to likely close out the Bucks, and the leniency of the league office, the Cavs could be short-handed going into round two. Kevin Love suffered a dislocated shoulder in the first quarter on Sunday, getting tangled with Kelly Olynyk while chasing down a rebound. Love immediately sprinted to the locker room and did not return; the team said he will receive further examination over the next 24 hours.
In addition to Love, Cleveland could also be without Kendrick Perkins, who likely faces a suspension after shoving Jae Crowder in the face. J.R. Smith also faces a ban for drawing a flagrant two after taking a swipe of his own at Crowder during a boxout for a rebound. Perkins managed to avoid ejection for his blatant bout of flagrance, while Smith was quickly shown the door for his.
While Cleveland is unlikely to notice Perkins’s absence, the losses of Love and Smith could prove paramount for the Cavaliers. Cleveland possesses a well-balanced roster at full health, but it doesn’t have the depth to replace two starters. Tristan Thompson is one of the best rebounders in the league, but a liability due to his free-throw shooting. Iman Shumpert is a strong perimeter defender and capable scorer, but he’d leave Cleveland’s bench barer than LeBron’s headband-less brow if David Blatt inserted him into the starting five.
In Game 4, LeBron and Irving handled most of the heavy lifting without suffering much distress. LeBron finished with 27 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists while Irving chipped in 24 points and 11 boards of his own. Cleveland led by 21 at the half, earning its biggest lead of the series, and set the dial to cruise control for the final two quarters. Boston, as has been the case most of the series, struggled to keep up, shooting just 38.8% from the field and a ghastly 3-of-23 from three-point range.
Even without Love, the talent battle still swung heavily in the Cavaliers’ favor against the Celtics, but the same won’t be the case in the next round. Up until Game 4, Love had played his stretch-four role to perfection and looked as engaged as he had all year. In the first three games against Boston, he averaged 18.3 points and nine rebounds while hitting 47.4% of his triples.
While Love’s injury was unavoidable, Perkins and Smith’s dust-ups were rare mental lapses for a team that hadn’t suffered many so far this postseason. Cleveland has played with surprising poise for a team with so few playoff reps. It’s seen big production from postseason first-timers Irving and Love, saw James turn into Playoff LeBron when called upon and benefited from a supporting cast providing the type of necessary production needed to be a well-rounded threat. Its starters successfully carried the burden of playoff minutes and its team showed the type of toughness necessary to close out lopsided games and pull out tight ones.
Cleveland needed to gain this type of experience together before likely going against a playoff-tested team like Chicago in the second round. There are certain things the Cavaliers could get away with against a sub-.500 team that they won’t be able to do against a contender. If the Bulls advance, out goes Boston’s inexperienced frontcourt, in comes Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson. Instead of Marcus Smart handling the ball, it’ll be Derrick Rose. Jimmy Butler will be pressing James on both ends of the floor. The Bulls’ top-10 offense will apply pressure for four quarters and they’ll be able to draw on experiences learned from hardship and heartbreak before.
As for Cleveland? It has a sweep of the Celtics under its belt, a modest start. For the Cavaliers to continue on their path to contention they’ll need to keep learning on the fly, while simultaneously gaining valuable lessons and valuable wins.
A first-round appearance was an important benchmark for Boston, but it was just a blip on the radar for Cleveland. With a sweep in hand, the Cavaliers have taken the first step toward their ultimate goal. Cleveland is built to win the title this season, so long as it has all of its necessary parts in tow.
The Cavaliers won their first playoff series since LeBron left for Miami in 2010, but they won’t feel fulfilled this year unless they win something else they failed to claim during his first time around.