All that one can reasonably ask of a playoff bout between a championship contender and a sub-.500 qualifier is a spark. This series should have it.
Matchup: (2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Boston Celtics
Season Series: 2-2
Efficiency rankings: Cleveland (Off. Rating: 4, Def. Rating: 20, Net Rating: 6), Boston (Off. Rating: 20, Def. Rating 13, Net Rating: 18)
All that one can reasonably ask of a playoff bout between a championship contender and a sub-.500 qualifier is a spark. This series should have it. Boston is at the least a compelling watch, groomed to overachieve for stretches at a time just as it has all season. When pitted against a foe as dominant as these Cavs, that pluck isn’t likely to amount to many wins. It does, however, demand Cleveland’s attention; Boston works so hard and executes with such diligence that its opponents must respond in kind. Rather than sleepwalk their way to a win over some lesser team, the Cavs will be called to immediate focus by an opponent of proven capability.
The Case For The Cavaliers
Cleveland’s platform begins with its general standing: No team in the East (and only a few in the West) have been on the Cavs’ level since February. It took time and a pair of significant moves, but this team has sorted itself out more or less as expected. One could quibble with the way Kevin Love is utilized, the deficits of the bench, or the defensive investment of the team’s stars. Those factors – and more – will surely be at issue at some point in the playoffs. The margin just isn’t close enough in this series for the Cavs to have any serious concern.
Provided that Cleveland does its work, its progression to the second round is all but guaranteed. There’s too much firepower here for Boston to cut off all the angles. Even a resilient group of role players can only provide so much interference against two of the game’s top shot creators. That they’re flanked by just the right mix of shooters, rebounders and finishers presents an obvious problem: There isn’t a fatal matchup in play for the Cavs nor any particular exploitable point of leverage. Allow Cleveland’s stars room to work and they’ll overcome even solid individual defense. Overreact to their moves or fakes and they’ll find the next option in line. By no means are the Cavs the image of fluid team basketball, yet over the course of the year they’ve found a workable formula (and a dependable defense) to overwhelm all but the NBA’s finest. Boston doesn’t at all fit that description.
The Case For The Celtics
Boston is nothing if not resourceful. Celtics coach Brad Stevens will investigate the opportunity in every matchup and tinker with evolving strategies, which will make life difficult for the Cavs. Push hard enough along the right tactical lines and the window opens – perhaps to the point the feisty Celtics can keep the series competitive.
Some address of LeBron James will be needed. Boston lacks both the high-level, size-appropriate defenders to handle James on the perimeter and the shot-blocker needed to meet James at the rim. On balance that leaves the primary assignment to the likes of Jae Crowder, Evan Turner and Marcus Smart (who saw periodic time on James in the regular season), with secondary roles in play for the likes of Brandon Bass, Jonas Jerebko, and Jared Sullinger. Boston switched pick-and-rolls plenty against Cleveland in the regular season in order to seal the dribble-drive openings that sequence creates. In practice, switching proved to be a mixed bag.
Yet if players like Bass and Sullinger can hold their own against James situationally, then perhaps the Cavs could be prodded into a dangerous isolation game. James and Kyrie Irving love to punish opponents for mismatches. Should they over-dribble and fade away into too many contested shots on the wrong night, it could throw Cleveland’s execution off balance. From there the Celtics would still need to scrap for more consistent offense than they scrounged up in their regular season meetings, though the prospect of doing so is at least more feasible than otherwise.
Isaiah Thomas, Celtics. Boston won’t have much luck in this series if Thomas isn’t in top form, squirreling through Cleveland’s defense for layups and kick-outs. Shot creation can’t be faked. A team either has enough juice to initiate its offense against playoff defense or it stalls out along the way. The latter seems more likely if the Celtics end up relying too much on the creative stylings of Turner, making Thomas’ ability to shake an initial defender and put the offense in motion absolutely vital.
26.5 points per 100 possession – the difference in net rating between Cleveland’s starters and Boston’s starters. Since adding J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov, the Cavs' leading five have posted the most dominant margin (+19.3) of any NBA lineup. Boston’s current starters, by contrast, are overrun nightly (-7.2). True to characterization, the Celtics seem to scrap and claw their way back into most games, but in terms of top-level talent these teams aren’t in the same league.
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Cavs in five. It’s here that Boston’s resourcefulness meets its reasonable end. Credit is due to the Celtics for trudging through a rebuilding trade and significant injuries to reach this point, but in the postseason spunk makes a poor substitute for an All-NBA rotation.