How They Got Here
• Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavs have made it to the Eastern Conference finals without a playoff loss for the second season in a row. That fact alone is impressive, but it somehow fails to communicate the full breadth of their dominance. Simply put, it’s nearly impossible to imagine any team eliminating them as long as LeBron James stays healthy. The Boston Celtics might even be lucky to win a game, no matter their home-court advantage.
The Raptors certainly offered the Cavs little competition in the second round. One year removed from taking the eventual champions to six games in the conference finals, Toronto entered the series with hopes of testing Cleveland after adding Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. However, they were less competitive than even the most pessimistic observers expected. The Cavaliers took control of Game 1, kept it going in Games 2 and 3, and overcame a last gasp from the Raptors in Game 4 to complete the sweep. LeBron James literally spun the ball in guys’ faces, Kyrie Irving took over the clincher, and the whole operation hummed along beautifully. Things could have been a little different for the Raptors if Kyle Lowry hadn’t missed the last two games with an ankle injury, but the series was over before he was forced to the sidelines.
The Cavs have done more than “flip the switch” so far this postseason — they’ve barely been challenged. The four wins over the Raptors came by a total of 61 points, with just one of the wins featuring a single-digit margin. Beyond the final scores, though, Cleveland just looked impervious to whatever Toronto tried. In a conference semifinal round full of blowouts, their series was the least competitive by some distance.
The Cavaliers’ reward was eight full days of rest after last Sunday’s Game 4. They should be well equipped to take on whatever’s thrown their way, and it would be a big surprise if they do not make it to a third consecutive NBA Finals.
• Boston : It wasn’t especially pretty, but the Celtics have made good on their No. 1 seed and reached the conference finals, perhaps the best finish a non-Cavs team can hope for in this iteration of the East. Whether they’ve consistently impressed in the playoffs is a question open to more interpretation.
After coming back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat the Chicago Bulls in the first round, the Celtics welcomed the No. 4 Washington Wizards to TD Garden for the start of their Eastern Conference semifinals matchup. The first game set the tone for what turned out to be a series defined by its runs. Boston trailed 16-0 to start Game 1 and went on to win 123-111 behind 33 points from Isaiah Thomas, who took over after he lost a tooth.
Yet that Thomas performance paled in comparison to what he did in Game 2, when he scored 53 points to outduel John Wall and his 40 points. It was the best individual battle of the playoffs so far, although the Wizards could just as easily blame the loss on their inability to remain functional and hold leads when they turned to the bench.
Washington finally held their early leads in Games 3 and 4, winning by a combined 46 points to even the series. The latter was defined by a 26-0 second-half run that turned a tight game into a no-doubter. When the Wizards got out in transition, they dominated play.
The Celtics came back to cruise to a 123-101 blowout win in Game 5, which set the stage for a potential closeout victory at the Verizon Center in Friday’s Game 6. They nearly did it, too, but John Wall nailed a three-pointer in the closing seconds to keep the Wizards’ season alive. The Celtics should have had a little more time to respond, of course, but an apology from the league didn’t keep everyone from playing Game 7.
The Celtics’ series-clinching 115-105 win was defined by two factors. The first was the unexpected clutch play of big man Kelly Olynyk, who scored 14 of his playoff career-high 26 in the fourth quarter to help Boston pull away. But the Celtics’ game-altering 18-2 run to end the third and begin the fourth quarter rested just as much on the Wizards’ inability to find effective lineups beyond their starting lineup. Wall and Bradley Beal missed all but a combined six minutes of Game 7, and their performance suffered for it late. Wall missed his final 11 shots and ended what was otherwise a superstar-level series on a sour note.
The formula for the Celtics against the Wizards was fairly simple — rely on Thomas, get a few more solid performances from role players, limit the opponent’s transition opportunities, and use superior depth to take advantage of any time the other squad’s best players rested. They’ll likely try to do the same against the Cavaliers, just with a much higher degree of difficulty. — Eric Freeman
There is little point in pretending that we’ve moved on from April 5, when the visiting Cavaliers dutifully downed a cracking Celtics club looking to put a bow on its 2016-17 regular season. For a regular season effort, this was a complete and total flip of the switch for the defending champs – LeBron James dominated a second quarter stretch that led to an eventual 114-91 blowout, as the expected Eastern Conference finals preview was over far earlier than most anticipated.
The NBA, after a spring’s worth of one-sided postseason outcomes, hopes that April outcome isn’t typical, and that games like this between the Eastern finalists won’t bleed into mid-May. Cleveland and Boston, however, gave us far too many reasons in the regular season to conclude that this might not be the case. The Cavs took three of four from the Celtics during the regular season, with each contest coming with an insistence from the outside that this pairing, come May, might be revisited in the Eastern finals.
The Cavs ended their initial meeting with Boston with a comfortable, 128-122 win on Nov. 5. Al Horford missed the game due to complications from a concussion, while Jae Crowder missed the contest with a bum ankle. Six Cavs hit double-figures, and while a pall may have come over the November highlights, do trust that Tristan Thompson did do this to (Horford replacement) Tyler Zeller.
Horford and Crowder were on hand for more of the same on Dec. 29, when the Cavaliers had their way on the offensive glass during another offensive shootout and 124-118 win. LeBron, Kyrie and Kevin Love combined for 85 points while James and Irving hit for 23 total assists.
The Celtics finally broke through at home in its lone win over Cleveland on the regular season, marching toward a 103-99 victory on March 3. LeBron came through with a 28-point, 13-rebound, 10-assist outing in the loss, a defeat Cleveland most certainly was not angry about (despite the team’s 6-9 swoon that followed the loss), with Cavaliers general manager David Griffin warning that “Cheat Code”-level LeBron was about to emerge.
It did, with team in tow, on April 5. Boston’s sometimes-there shooters did not show up, the Celtics had no answer for Cleveland’s small-ball lineups featuring LeBron James as EVERYTHING. Only Isaiah Thomas (26 points and six assists in 32, blowout-limiting, minutes) answered with large box score numbers for Boston as the Cavaliers drove a giant wedge between the defending champs, and the East’s long hoped-for top challenger. — Kelly Dwyer
Likely Starting Lineups
The Cavaliers start the same lineup that led them to a championship last spring. Kyrie Irving is one of the league’s finest scoring point guards, J.R. Smith is a 3-and-D shooting guard who now leans more toward the latter quality (if you can believe it), Kevin Love excels as a three-shooting power forward, and Tristan Thompson hits the offensive glass as well as any center in the league.
The fifth and most important player is LeBron James, who reestablished himself as the NBA’s single greatest player over the last month. After spending most of the regular season as a fringe MVP candidate, LeBron exerted a level of control over the first two rounds that few players in history could think to match. There is nothing he can’t do to help Cleveland win.
Cleveland’s bench is one of the best in the NBA, as well. Sharpshooters Channing Frye and Kyle Korver rank fourth and fifth among the team’s playoff scorers, respectively. Iman Shumpert is a capable defender, Deron Williams has been a solid backup after joining the team late in the season, and Richard Jefferson can be a series-changer depending on matchups. No one else is likely to see significant time, but it’s rare for any team to field a respectable 10-man rotation.
Incidentally, the Celtics are one of the few teams that can compete with the Cavaliers’ depth. Nevertheless, head coach Brad Stevens seems likely to stick with a core group in this series.
Isaiah Thomas starts at the point, where he has turned from miniature curiosity into a bona fide superstar scorer likely to finish in the top five of MVP voting this season. His small stature makes him a target at the defensive end, though, which makes Avery Bradley’s role as a lockdown defender very important. Jae Crowder occupies a similar role as a 3-and-D wing and should draw the defensive assignment on LeBron more often than not.
The interior has been an occasional problem area for the Celtics, but Al Horford can be as effective as any big man in the league on his best nights. His spot-up shooting and passing makes him a matchup problem for many centers, although his iffy rebounding can be exploited by adept offensive rebounders like Tristan Thompson. Starting forward Amir Johnson is mostly there as a defensive presence, although he’s averaged only 11.2 minutes per game in the postseason and could be consigned to the bench early if matchups dictate it.
Boston’s bench features a number of quality players who should see ample time in this series. Kelly Olynyk is a stretch five who arguably won Game 7 against the Wizards, rookie wing Jaylen Brown is an active defender who can finish, and Marcus Smart is an expert-level pest who could be tasked with defending Kyrie Irving for lengthy stretches.
That trio is essentially guaranteed to be part of the rotation. Several others could join them depending on matchups, including guard Terry Rozier and eternal leaper Gerald Green. Rozier has scored in double figures three times in the playoffs already, and Green helped turn around the first-round series against the Chicago Bulls when he became a surprise inclusion in the starting lineup. — Freeman
Matchups to Watch
• Brad Stevens vs. What He’s Been Left With: Brad’s been left with quite a bit, the four-year Celtics coach, enough to topple the Chicago Bulls through the most harrowing of challenges prior to handling basketball business at home against a very good, possibly emerging, Washington Wizards team. The Celtics were worth every bit of their 53 wins this season, aware of their (by now, infamous) limitations yet never making excuses for them.
Through no fault of the Celtics’ own, however, far too many will tune in for the first time in this series to a team they know best as “the club that didn’t trade its picks for a star.” They’ll wonder why Boston’s front office was charmed so stridently by players like Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart. They’ll wonder, on paper, if this team can even take a game.
This is where Stevens digs in, sometimes (as was the case in the busy Wizards series) with no immediate gratification. The Celtics coach has been more than aware of Cleveland’s dominant, smallish lineup options since before Al Horford (16.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 67 percent from the field and 60 percent from long range against Washington) became a free-agent grab, and on-paper options (featuring the notables listed above) do abound.
Should the Celtics succeed in making this a series, however, the credit won’t and shouldn’t head in Stevens’ direction. This Celtics bunch features an exacting crew of motivated, versatile helpers; and it would be those rotation pushers that made the difference. Any coach can push a button, but it takes a real dynamo like Marcus Smart to actually go out, and wrest the damn rebound away from LeBron James.
• Tristan Thompson vs. Moses Malone: It’s Moses if you’re pessimistic, and think the Cavs will sweep.
Tristan is up against Larry Smith (a record 36 offensive rebounds as a Warrior, in Golden State’s five-game loss to the Lakers in 1987) if you reckon the Celtics can take a game, or Moses again (a record 46, in six games, as a Rocket against Boston in the 1981 Finals) if the Cavs go in six. If the whole thing goes seven, Thompson will face down Wes Unseld (against the Spurs, 1979) and Dikembe Mutombo’s (against Milwaukee, 2001) shared mark of 45 offensive rebounds in a seven-game series.
If the Cavs stay unbeaten, though, Thompson will likely have a chance to top the record in a series 27 offensive rebounds pulled in by Malone, working as a champion from Philly, in the 1983 Finals against Los Angeles. If Thompson approaches that mark, you can be assured it won’t be due to a rampant series of misses from the too-cold Cavaliers,
No, Thompson will go nuts because Tristan (inactive for the April 5 win) is ridiculously talented at pulling in offensive rebounds (39 in eight playoff games so far, against sturdy competition), and due to the prevailing issues on the defensive glass that Boston lines up with, every night.
The Celtics, as you’d expect, had their best outings (that win, the loss in the season’s first week) against Cleveland during the regular season when the Celtic frontcourt mitigated the Cavalier advantage on the glass. In the two other contests, one even played without Thompson, the Cavaliers absolutely crushed the Celtics on the offensive boards, managing to pull in one in every three of their misses.
Thompson secured but 13 offensive rebounds in three games against the Celtics during the regular season. He’ll have a new challenge in this series.
• The Celtics vs. Outstretched Hands: Boston’s big hope is the same one San Antonio held in reserve in its near-upset of the Golden State Warriors from Sunday afternoon. The Cavaliers’ Eastern-leading offense does its worst damage from behind the three-point line, and with most of the Cavaliers sharpening up their podcast pitch skills in the days between the second and third rounds, the touch could go cold.
The Cavs will play their ninth game in 34 days on Wednesday after playing nineteen regular season contests in the 34 days prior to this stretch. Through those first eight games, though, the team has shot an unconscionable 43.4 percent as a team from behind the three-point arc. Kyrie Irving (with 16 makes, but at only a 28 percent clip) is the only Cavalier shooting under 40 percent in the postseason, with James (46.8 percent), Kevin Love (40.5), Kyle Korver (48.5), J.R. Smith (44.1), Iman Shumpert (40) all pitching in.
Deron Williams has hit 9-15 from long range in the postseason. Channing Frye has missed just 13 times in 29 attempts for a 55 percent mark. Derrick Williams and Richard Jefferson have combined to hit two of three. The team is floating, from out there, mainly because LeBron James whips the Cleveland spacing into a lather at three different positions.
Boston, a team that was second in the NBA in holding squads to a 33.2 percentage from long range during the regular season, has a roster full of sensible, cerebral athletes that know how to contest these sorts of shots.
Against this Cavalier lineup, though, will it even matter? — Dwyer
How Cleveland Could Win
LeBron stays healthy. Irving keeps doing his part as an as-needed scorer and increasingly vital facilitator. Love and Tristan Thompson clean the glass, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert hold up well enough defensively, and Kyle Korver and Channing Frye continue drilling the clean looks they get by royal decree.
Mostly, though: LeBron stays healthy. If he’s operational, he’s the favorite to come out of the East, until proven otherwise. — Dan Devine
How the Celtics Can Win
Steal Game 1 against the rusty Cavs; hope Thomas can win his matchup with a defense-averse Irving; make their threes and close out on Cleveland’s shooters; don’t allow Thompson to kill you on the glass; look the other way as Olynyk rips Kevin Love’s shoulder from his socket again; and pray, above all else, LeBron James isn’t LeBron James. — Ben Rohrbach
Best Reason to Watch
The Cavaliers stopped thinking about June this year, and it’s showed.
Despite a few pockmarks here and there, as LeBron James sat in games he could have (but probably shouldn’t have) played in, we didn’t hear nearly as much about punting regular season games in order to save legs for the postseason. The Cavs did punt games, but during long stretches late in the season, contests that saw James playing heavy minutes with little reward. James would go on to lead the NBA in minutes per contest in 2016-17, years after introducing us by force to the idea that nationally televised superstars need nights off ahead of anyone else.
All of this came after LeBron’s run of midseason noise in his attempts to move for a minor shakeup of the Cavalier roster, shake ups made all the more impossible (as LeBron James knows better than anyone else in this league) by Cleveland’s notable lack of upcoming draft picks or luxury tax maneuverability, less a sign of poor planning and more the result (as GM David Griffin continues to peel perfect helpers in via trade) of the acknowledgment that when LeBron James touches down, you move to Win Now.
This means employing a roster half full of players, like LeBron, born in the first half of the 1980s. This means James plays 37.8 minutes per game and works 53 minutes against the Pacers in an April regular season classic.
It was a classic because LeBron wanted to win it, and the Pacers would not relent. That’s our hope from Boston in this third round, and we’ve seen little in the regular or postseason that would leave us considering the Celtics anything more than an enormous underdog.
Distress remains, though.
That James was able to work for so long – at such great efficiency and for so many minutes – for merely a 51-win team is alarming. For all their troubles, Boston still outpaced the Cavaliers this year in the regular season by toppling those that it was supposed to, and by mostly sustaining an Eastern-best batch of consistency and effort during the meat of the regular season.
Cleveland doesn’t look ahead, though. Not any more, at least. We’re not sure what they were doing in March, but for now things are settled.
Whether you’re following the abject joy in which the Cavs dispatched the Pacers and Raptors or merely the box scores on your phone, you’ve noted that the defending champs have not only flipped the switch, but jammed it in place. Entire organizations were left in upheaval, and the Celtics will have to fight not to be left down by merely six days’ worth of games (between Wednesday’s Game 1 and next Tuesday’s Game 4) in the face of what was otherwise a wildly successful season.
Maybe one more sweep – one more astonishing burst of all-around dominance from LeBron – maybe that’s supposed to be the crowning glory. The 2016 Finals comeback was rather notable and the assumed 2017 championship-round reunion with Golden State could rank as memorable above all, but perhaps we should focus as the Cavs have done. On May.
This could be the best week of basketball performed in LeBron James’ lifetime. His peak as a player may not come with swelling music strung alongside Game 7 drama or in desperate, late-game achievements, but in brutal, beautiful stretches of play as his focus steadies on a time of year that he knows all too well. — Dwyer
Prediction: Cavaliers in 5.