Celtics vs. Cavs: The backstory
This will mark the second consecutive year that the Celtics and Cavaliers have faced off with a chance to go to the Finals on the line, so in the annals of NBA history, this will appear to be just another meeting in an East rivalry series.
Except, of course, this is not. In fact, this series is entirely different than what we would have expected one year ago, 10 months ago, six months ago, or even six weeks ago.
They seemed destined to face each other on this stage back when they played on Opening Night, with Boston having stacked its lineup thanks to a blockbuster trade with these very same Cavaliers, sending out three players and a draft pick for star guard Kyrie Irving, after having signed star forward Gordon Hayward.
The Cavs, for their part, added a new cast of role players, including ex-Celtics Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas, as well as Celtics nemesis Dwyane Wade. The subplots were intriguing.
But now that the matchup is actually here, the subplot is that those subplots are utterly irrelevant. These two teams have landed in late May bearing little resemblance to the teams that played in Cleveland back on the first night of the season, let alone in last year's playoffs.
The Cavs overhauled their roster at the trade deadline, sending away Crowder, Thomas and Wade, and bringing in Larry Nance, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and George Hill. The Celtics had their roster worn away by injury, having lost Hayward for the season in the first game, then losing Irving to knee surgery in March. Various other injuries in recent weeks - Daniel Theis, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and now Shane Larkin - have sapped their already taxed roster.
The storyline for this series has changed, then. We have the same two teams, but only nine of the 24 players who were in last year's East finals are in this year's East finals.
The most important constant has been LeBron James, who is looking to represent the East in the NBA Finals for the eighth straight season. James' supporting cast has been dodgy this postseason, especially the four players acquired at the trade deadline. Hood even caused a stir by refusing to enter the final game against Toronto during garbage time, a strange stand to take for a guy who is averaging 4.6 points and shooting 13.3 percent from the 3-point line in the playoffs.
James' greatness has been off the charts even by his standards in the postseason, as he has averaged 34.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 9.0 assists, shooting 55.3 percent from the field and delivering a slew of late-game dagger shots.
With all the injuries the Celtics have suffered, the star of the Celtics' playoff run has been coach Brad Stevens, who has led Boston over two teams (Milwaukee and Philadelphia) that had talent advantages. He's had to make things work with a third-year, first-time starter - Terry Rozier - and rookie Jayson Tatum as his top two offensive options.
But Stevens consistently worked favorable matchups on the offensive end, and trusted his defense's disciplined approach, which frustrated young stars Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first round and Ben Simmons in the second.
The result is a trip to the conference finals that seemed impossible for Boston when the postseason began. In the end, we're left with an unexpected primary storyline, one that does not include Irving, Thomas or any of the guys the Cavs acquired in February.
At the outset, at least, this series is about Stevens, now established as one of the game's top tacticians, trying to find a way to do what no East team has done since 2009: slow down James and ultimately keep him from the NBA Finals.
The matchup that matters
LeBron James vs. Marcus Morris (and friends)
Morris did an outstanding job as the primary defender on Ben Simmons in the conference semis, and he will be called upon again defensively here in the conference finals. This time, though the challenge is, um, tougher.
We've established how dominant James has been in the postseason to date. But Morris was targeted by the Celtics last summer (he was the principal return in the Avery Bradley trade) because of his track record defending James. Some dubbed him a "LeBron-stopper," but that's a bit overly enthusiastic. Morris is tough and physical, and over the course of a series, will do his best to get under James' skin.
In two games guarding James this season, Morris gave up 12.0 points to James in 27.5 possessions. Only eight players who guarded James more than once this year gave up more points, and James shot 50 percent against Morris. LeBron-stopper, indeed.
But Morris will have plenty of help. Jaylen Brown, probably not yet 100 percent because of a hamstring injury suffered in the first round, will get some time on James, and actually guarded James more during the season than Morris. But Stevens needs Brown's offense, and probably will not want to wear him down by assigning him to defend James.
The wildcard, likely, is rookie Semi Ojeleye. He has decent size (6-7, 235 pounds) and natural defensive talent, and he helped turn the Milwaukee series with his defense on Antetokounmpo when he was a surprise insertion into the starting five. He has guarded James this season, but on a limited basis: James shot 59.5 percent against Ojeleye, with just 2.0 points in 13.0 possessions.
The key player
You have to feel for Al Horford . He's been in the league for 11 seasons and appeared in 10 postseasons. In four of those 10 postseasons, he went up against James' Cavaliers, and lost the series every time.
In fact, Horford's teams have gone 1-16 against the Cavs in the playoffs. Horford has not played particularly well in those games, either, averaging just 10.9 points, while watching James average 29.6.
But Horford will be critical to the Celtics' upset hopes in this series, on both sides of the ball. Offensively, he has had to take on a bigger burden with the loss of Irving to knee surgery, and he's done that effectively, averaging 17.2 points, a career high in the postseason. While the Celtics' youngsters have been up-and-down throughout the playoffs, Horford has been steady, and the big plays he's made offensively have carried this team.
Horford will be very important to what the Celtics do defensively. He will have to help on James, but don't expect him to be matched with James straight-up very often. Stevens needs Horford to make things difficult on Cavs forward Kevin Love, who has gotten his game back together after averaging just 11.4 points on 33.3 percent shooting in the first-round series against Indiana.
In the last three games against the Raptors, Love's numbers were 31 points and 11 rebounds, 21 points and 16 rebounds and 23 points and six rebounds.
Dealing with James is hard enough. Horford will have to take Love out of the picture. He guarded Love for 32 possessions per game during the regular season, and locked him up - Love scored just 5.0 points per game against Horford, on 25.0 percent shooting.
Horford will try to throw off the James playoff albatross here, but he'll have to do so by outplaying Love.
The big number
James leads all players in postseason scoring in the fourth quarter, with 90 points in 10 fourth quarters. He has shot 50.8 percent from the field in the fourth quarter and has made 20 of 25 free throws. When the games have been in doubt, the Cavaliers have looked to James. According to the NBA's clutch statistics (games within five points with five minutes remaining), James has scored 4.6 points (on 50 percent shooting) in the clutch, which ranks third in the postseason.
Advantage, Cavs. Right?
Not entirely. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Celtics' run to the conference finals has been the unveiling of Rozier, who not only averaged 18.3 points heading into the closeout game, but came up with crucial baskets at the most important times. Rozier was right behind James, ranking fourth in clutch scoring, at 4.3 points. More impressive: He was 7-for-9 from the field (77.8 percent) and 4-for-4 from the 3-point line.
The Celtics also feature the No. 5 clutch scorer in the playoffs, Horford, who averaged 4.2 points, though shot just 40 percent in those situations.
There's no one in the league you'd want more in clutch minutes than James, but the Celtics, at least, have some hope of keeping up with Cleveland in late-game situations.
Celtics vs. Cavs: The prediction
This has been a stunning run for a Celtics team that will get back two All-Star caliber players next season in Irving and Hayward. The postseason experience gained by Tatum, Rozier, Brown and Ojeleye is irreplaceable, given the major roles they were called on to play.
Playing a series against James will build on that experience. This team should be primed for a Finals run next season.
But this season, James figures to be too much. Stevens has had a terrific postseason, and the Celtics will throw a variety of options at James that could slow him down at times. Problem is, James always figures out the best of East defenses. That's not going to change here.
Cavaliers in 6
NBA playoff schedule: Celtics vs. Cavs
(All times Eastern)
|Game 1||May 13||3:30 p.m.||Celtics||Cavs|
|Game 2||May 15||8:30 p.m.||Celtics||Cavs|
|Game 3||May 19||8:30 p.m.||Cavs||Celtics|
|Game 4||May 21||8:30 p.m.||Cavs||Celtics|
|Game 5*||May 23||8:30 p.m.||Celtics||Cavs|
|Game 6*||May 25||8:30 p.m.||Cavs||Celtics|
|Game 7*||May 27||8:30 p.m.||Celtics||Cavs|
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