Are the Boston Celtics ready to give the Cleveland Cavaliers their first test of the postseason? Or is LeBron James’s appearance in a seventh straight Finals a mere formality?
The Eastern Conference finals will be a matchup of the top two teams from the East, though Cleveland will be heavy favorites despite being the No. 2 seed. Saying the Cavs have been on cruise control during the playoffs would be an understatement. LeBron and his merry gang of three-point marksman dispatched the Pacers and Raptors in two largely uneventful sweeps, and James could be having the best playoff campaign of his storied career. How will the Celtics slow the Cavs down?
Boston’s problems start with James, who is averaging 34.4 points, 9.0 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game, while shooting nearly 57% from the field and 47% from three. LeBron has looked his best when surrounded by shooters, a luxury afforded to him through many different lineup combinations. Cleveland will be able to downsize with Boston when needed, and neither team has a traditional big who can present a significant matchup problem for the other. The Cavs will be able to match the Celtics’ versatility far better than Boston’s opponents from the first two rounds, which will force even more creativity from Brad Stevens.
The Celtics can present their own conundrums for the Cavs. Isaiah Thomas will be hunting out Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in pick-and-rolls, and Cleveland’s bigs will have to be ready to find themselves on an island against Thomas. If Thomas is outplaying Irving, and Al Horford can win his matchup against Love, then Boston’s role players can stay within themselves and still swing games. Both teams will launch a healthy amount of threes, and the Celtics are perhaps the only team in the East who can keep up with the Cavs from the outside for a full series.
It will be rather shocking if Cleveland does not win this series. Not with its advantages in experience, top-end talent and LeBron James. Both of these teams have done well in terms of adjusting to their opponent through the first two rounds. If Boston can find an exploitable weakness early in the series—and make use of homecourt—the C’s will not be as easy of an out. Good luck slowing down James, though.
Three storylines to watch
• Defending Isaiah. Who will the Cavs call upon to slow down Thomas? James seems like the obvious choice in the fourth quarter. He relishes guarding opponents’ best players down the stretch, and putting James on Thomas could completely neutralize the source of most of Boston’s crunch-time offense. But Thomas has shown during these playoffs he won’t be stopped simply because he is guarded by a larger defender. And Boston’s floor spacing will demand a focused effort from Cleveland’s entire defense, not only the player called to check Thomas. The Cavs’ team defense looked the best it did all season against Toronto, but those same players struggled mightily against the Pacers. Which version of the Cleveland defense shows up, and if James is willing to chase around a point guard, could ultimately determine how long this series lasts.
• So many threes. Since the start of the playoffs, the Cavs lead all teams in three-point field goals made per game, hitting 14.4 a contest as a team on 43.4% shooting. The Celtics are right behind them at No. 2, connecting on 13.1 a game on 37.3% shooting. We’ve seen some volatility behind the arc during these playoffs—most notably during the Spurs-Rockets series—and if either of these teams goes cold for a night, their offense will suffer considerably. Both teams do a great job of generating open looks, while the Cavs also have more players who aren’t afraid to pull up from behind the arc. Taking away easy threes for the opponent and not being afraid to fire in the face of a cold streak will be extremely important for both teams.
• Experience. How will Boston react to the weight of this series? Are the Celtics content making it this far in the playoffs, or do they really believe they are ready to topple LeBron? The Cavs have a veteran roster with a singular goal: Win a championship. Boston is not quite all in, having constructed a very talented team that is still probably lacking one piece from being a true championship contender. Upstarts rarely slay the juggernaut on the first try, and it’s possible this current group of Celtics needs to experience a defeat against the Cavs before knowing what it will take to beat them. Boston made a little bit of a statement at the trade deadline when it chose flexibility over a win-now move, a decision that made sense on many levels. Cleveland, on the other hand, has been hell-bent on the same mission for three straight seasons. Boston’s young core will have to respond to that level of focus in a way they’ve never had to before.
Most Intriguing Matchup
Kyrie Irving vs. Isaiah Thomas. Two offense-first point guards who will sometimes asked to guard other people, Irving and Thomas will be ruthless in attacking one another whenever they are matched up one-on-one. Thomas proved last series he can go head-to-head against another great at his position and still lead his team to a victory, though the pressure to outplay Kyrie will be much greater than the pressure to outplay Wall.
With all of Cleveland’s talent on the court, Thomas cannot afford to lose his individual battle with Irving. The Cavs’ point guard has flown under the radar due to James’s brilliance during the postseason, but Irving has had his own stretches of greatness during the first two rounds. If Irving is matching Thomas bucket for bucket, then Boston has no chance in this series. The Celtics can move Thomas off of Irving on defense, but it will be harder to hide him than it was against the Wizards. Whichever player holds up the best during this matchup could ultimately serve as a bellwether of sorts for series.
Biggest X-Factor: Boston's Bench
The Celtics’ win over the Wizards was largely fueled by their depth, as Boston dominated the series whenever both teams went away from their starting lineup. It won’t be as simple against Cleveland, not with LeBron playing heavy minutes and the Cavs employing competent veterans, but the Celtics will need their reserves to step up. First, Boston has to find ways to score when Thomas is off the court. That’s been a theme for the team all season long, and it will matter more now than ever before. The Celtics also have to be on the plus side whenever LeBron sits for them to have any chance of winning this series. If Boston can get that kind of consistency from its bench, then it can start thinking upset.
Cavaliers in 5. The way LeBron is playing right now, the way the Celtics struggled with Washington and the way the Cavs have looked through eight games does not bode well for Boston. Homecourt advantage doesn’t really matter in a series like this, not when one team has the best player in the world operating at the height of his powers. Cleveland has seen every bit of adversity possible over the last two seasons, while Boston is still learning what it takes to win as the playoffs continue. The Celtics are very, very good, but this group isn’t championship ready just yet. When it’s all said and done, LeBron James will be headed to his seventh straight NBA Finals.