Conference Finals Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers
They did it… Somehow, some way, this team got the job done, through five hard-fought, grind-it-out dogfight games they defeat the Philadelphia 76ers 4-1 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Through every single adversity the season and the Basketball Gods could possibly throw at them, they beat all comers, silenced all doubters to arrive at the feet of the old enemy. LeBron James.
The man is a living legend, a 4x MVP, who hasn’t missed an all-star game since the late 80s. An unstoppable freight train who scores at will, sees passing angles others didn’t know existed and exerts his will over every single game he plays. LeBron James is the closest thing the NBA has to a living, breathing cheat code for Basketball. The Celtics for the second season in a row match up with the King on the hardwood in the Eastern Conference Finals, but this matchup has very little in common with last year’s iteration; the jerseys are the same, but the teams most definitely are not.
Both Cleveland and Boston are reeling from the loss of Kyrie Irving, but the impact is worse on the Celtics’ side. Without their leading scorer and floor general, the C’s were forced to tread water for the remainder of the season. However, Boston embraced this adversity and has beaten all comers thus far en route to a date with destiny.
Cleveland on the other hand is rolling. After an unexpectedly difficult matchup with a hardnosed Indiana team, they obliterated the 1-seed Toronto Raptors in a series that never seemed even remotely close. The bad news for the Celtics is that Cleveland's role players, who struggled so mightily against Indiana seemed to find their stride just in time for the stakes to be at their highest.
This will be Boston’s biggest test this season, a 7-game slugfest with one of the best to ever lace ‘em up.
Opponent: Cleveland Cavaliers (4th in East) (109.5 DRtg 29th in NBA) (110.9 ppg 5th in NBA) (all stats per nba.com)
Game 1: TD Garden 3:30 PM Sunday, May 13
Season Series: 1-2
The Boston Celtics loom as Cleveland’s most worthy challenger in several years despite the team missing its two best players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The Celtics command respect as the NBA’s top-ranked defense this season and that defensive ferocity has been invaluable in both series the Celts have played thus far. They are a sharp, cohesive unit, led by one of the premier basketball minds in Brad Stevens and they are switchable at almost every position. The Celtics will not surrender this series easily.
Despite not receiving a single vote from his peers during the NBCA Coach of the Year award, Brad Stevens is widely regarded by the media, by other coaches and other players as one of the sharpest basketball minds in the league. His sets, plays, and rotations are crisp and effective, and when you need a quality play drawn up in crunch time, more often than not Brad gets it done. This series, like the previous two, see the superior coach commanding the green team.
Brad has not yet run out of ATO magic, the clip below shows how he has gifted the C's key baskets in high-intensity situations:
Clip courtesy of Tomasz Kordylewski
The Celts’ defense during the regular season was the best in the NBA. That is not hyperbole, throughout the season, the Celtics maintained their number one defense in the league by closing out harder and smarter on opponents’ 3-point shooting, making life hard for interior scorers, and switching everything to avoid dribble penetration. The Celtics are able to switch so often because they have like sized defenders at multiple positions, they are awash with preternatural defensive talents like Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, who between them can check just about anyone. The Celtics rank 5th in the NBA at defending the 3-point line with opponents shooting 34.5% during the regular season, this statistic matched up well against the Sixers, who shot an absolute barrage of 3-pointers, and it figures to carry over well against the Cavaliers, who like to do the same thing (CLE ranks 4th in 3-pointers attempted at 37.9% and ranked 6th in 3P% at 37.2%) (per nba.com)
The Celtics played incredible basketball throughout the regular season, despite overhauling all but four members of last season’s roster, the team played together and had tremendous success resulting in 55 wins and the 2-seed in the Eastern Conference. That hard work during the regular season means they get to enjoy home-court advantage in this round, which has been a boon for the C’s so far these playoffs. In 7 home playoff games this season, the Celtics are undefeated; their role players play better, they defend harder, and they feed off the ravenous energy the Garden exudes on a nightly basis. These extra games in front of the home fans could be the difference between an early exit or a long series.
LeBron Freaking James:
This is quite possibly the greatest advantage you can have going into the playoffs, one of the three best basketball players in history, still at the peak of his powers at 33 years of age. LeBron commands respect and attention on both sides of the ball; he is capable of running the offense in the half court, with his 6’8 size he can see over smaller defenders and has the cunning and confidence to take and make risky passes or shots. LBJ is a nightmare on the break; if you don’t defend in transition, he will detonate for some seriously ferocious and memorable highlights. The same can be said for his defense, when engaged LeBron can lock a perimeter player down with ease, and bang down low with post scorers, he also remains one of the NBA’s most feared ‘rearview’ defenders, the threat of his chase-down blocks can cause mistakes on what should be uncontested breakaway layups; his strength, smarts, speed, and experience make him a difficult assignment to handle on both ends.
And if you needed more evidence of James' defensive handiwork, here are some clips of his best chase-down blocks from last season:
Throughout the regular season, the Cavs ranked 5th in offense and 29th on defense. They are by many measures a one-dimensional team that relies heavily on their superstar for production, but when the Cavs are in rhythm, they can absolutely bury teams. The Cavaliers are stocked with lethal shooters, who may be streaky at times, but are still incredibly effective at putting up points in a hurry. When the Cavs trot out Hill, Smith, Korver, James, and Love; the Celtics better be ready to close out in a hurry, or the game could get out of hand quickly.
The loss of Shane Larkin in game four would seem an innocuous one at best during the regular season. When Sugar Shane was signed, most believed he would be a 15th man that would be cut during buyout season in favor of a veteran. Larkin has proven his worth to the Celts with terrific energy on both ends and is a reliable backup in a pinch; his injury shortens the Celtics’ rotation to 8 or 9 players.
This particular disadvantage on the Celtics’ side is not as pronounced as it was last time these two teams met in the playoffs. Aron Baynes and Greg Monroe have both beefed up the Celts’ rebounding rotation and have performed admirably in their roles. However, two Cavaliers in particular, have a proven track record of eating the Celtics for breakfast on the boards. Their names are Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love. Thompson is a singular example, his value to the Cavaliers is as an energy big man, grabbing a key rebound or smashing down a demoralizing putback. These things can seriously alter a team’s momentum in a situation where momentum matters greatly. Look for the Celtics to avoid at all costs matching Horford up with Thompson, the 6’11 Canadian has routinely dominated Horford in their contests, and the Celtics would be wise to put the larger and stronger Aron Baynes on the floor whenever Thompson checks in.
The Cavaliers have been a defensive sieve the entire year. They ranked 2nd last in defense during the regular season and 10th (out of 16) during the playoffs; even the playoff numbers are inflated, after dispatching the Raptors in a demoralizing 4-game sweep. The Cavaliers' primary concern heading into this series are their struggles are on the less glamorous end, which figures to advantage the Celtics, who can go through momentum-breaking scoring slumps at times.
Unreliable supporting cast:
LeBron James is a constant and reliable source of extremely high-quality play, if he is locked in, so are his stat lines at around 28-8-9, questions arise around James’ supporting cast who outside of Kevin Love, struggle to contribute well on a nightly basis. This lack of production from the other Cavaliers could be a boon for the Celts if they are able to pounce on bad performances from Cleveland’s role players.
The Celtics will win if:
Their defense can contain James’ passing, and limit his supporting cast members. As difficult as it may be, the Celtics cannot afford to send double teams to James, tiring him out with a rotation of strong single coverage defenders, and staying home on Cleveland’s deadly shooters is the only way the C’s can get it done. Much like the Sixers and Bucks series previously, the Celtics understand that their best chance at success in this series lies in containing the playmaking abilities of the opposing superstar, not necessarily their scoring.
The Cavaliers will win if:
Their supporting cast comes to play; if Thompson and Love both average a double-double in this series and destroy the Celts on the boards, the Cavs probably win the series even if J.R Smith and Korver don’t absolutely light it up from 3-point range. James will be his predictable, dominant best in this series, and that alone may just be enough to get the job done.
Cavaliers in 7 games. (As much as it pains me to pick against my team, I don't think the C's have the horses to run with LBJ in a 7 game series, but I hope to be proven wrong.)