For the fourth consecutive season, the Cleveland Cavaliers have advanced to the Eastern Conference finals, and for the second straight campaign, their opponent is the Boston Celtics.
There are similarities as to each team’s path to this point in the playoffs, as both the wine and gold and the Celts had first round series that went the full seven games, but it took Boston five games to win the second round series against Philadelphia, while the Cavs swept the top seeded Toronto Raptors.
Boston is missing their top two players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, who missed the entire season after breaking his leg Opening Night in Cleveland.
The Celtics have been led in the post season by rookie Jayson Tatum, averaging 18.8 points per game, and third year pro Terry Rozier at 18.2. And, of course, they have veteran big man Al Horford, who has been eliminated by the Cavs the past three season in the playoffs.
Boston has only played six players in every post-season game, but they do have Marcus Smart back after he missed the first four playoff contests.
Brad Stevens is considered the best coach in the NBA or at least in the top two (with Gregg Popovich) and his team was the best defensive team in the NBA during the regular season.
In the playoffs though, the Celts rank 11th out of the 16 playoff teams in defensive field goal percentage, and in terms allowing points, the Cavs have actually allowed fewer points per game than Boston.
The problem for Boston in last year’s series, won by the Cavs, four games to one, is the same problem much of the NBA has, they can’t stop LeBron James, who averaged 29.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 6.8 assists last year.
The big three of James, Irving, and Kevin Love all averaged more than 20 points per game. Boston’s leading scorers were Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, neither of whom are still with the team.
Remember, the Cavs won the four games last season by the following point totals: 13, 44, 13, and 33.
Stevens’ team is more athletic this season with Tatum, Rozier, and Jalen Brown, but they are less experienced, at least in terms of playing James in the playoffs.
In our opinion, Boston will probably try to be physical like Indiana had some success with in the first round.
But the wild card might just be George Hill for Cleveland. Hill missed three and a half games in that series, and the Cavs are 6-2 this season in the playoffs when Hill plays.
The other problem Boston poses is they are versatile offensively. Cavs’ coach Tyronn Lue likes to blitz certain players, much like they did against Victor Oladipo in the Pacers’ series, and DeMar DeRozan vs. Toronto.
Who does Lue do that to with Boston? Will be make Tatum the focus of the defensive scheme or will it be Rozier or Horford?
Will that offset the issue the C’s have in slowing down James? As it has been said, the problem with guarding James is if you are big enough, you aren’t quick enough, and if you are quick enough, you aren’t big enough.
So, Stevens will probably use Marcus Morris in the Lance Stephenson role, that as an irritant to James, trying to frustrate him.
And as usual, the outside shooters for the Cavs will have to come through. At least one of the shooters (Love, Kyle Korver, JR Smith) have to be hitting from outside to allow James room to operate in the paint.
Quite frankly, we were surprised with the ease in which the Cavaliers dispatched the Raptors, but we don’t feel that way with the Celtics. In our opinion, Boston isn’t ready to win four games out of seven against Cleveland.
That would mean an 8th straight trip to the Finals for James, and a fourth consecutive trip for the Cavs.