Coming into the year, one of the major storylines was that after the trade of Kyrie Irving, the most anticipated playoff matchup would be between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, and specifically between Irving and Lebron James.
While both teams are very different from what they were at the beginning of the season, these are the same two teams that met in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, and the hype around the matchup is still the same, but for different reasons.
How did they get here?
The Celtics made wholesale changes in the offseason, keeping only 4 players from last year’s roster and making big offseason splashes with the signing of former Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward and trading for Irving. Notable players shipped out included Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and Avery Bradley.
Boston was riddled with injuries all year—losing both Hayward and Irving for the season along with big man Daniel Theis. The Celtics embraced the next man up mentality—similar to New England Patriots—and have propelled themselves to the brink of their first finals appearance in eight years led by rookie Jayson Tatum, second-year star Jaylen Brown, and much do-it-all big man Al Horford.
For the Cavaliers, however, the drama took place during the season. Cleveland elected to stack the team with experience in favor of youth, adding players like Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jose Calderon, and Jeff Green at the start of the year. But after a slow start and an awful January, general manager Koby Altman went through a complete overhaul of the roster, acquiring younger players in Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., George Hill, and Rodney Hood at the trade deadline. The Cavaliers are now completely James-dominant, as he led the team in almost all major categories in the first round series vs the Pacers.
History between the two teams
The Celtics and Cavaliers have clashed three times in the postseason in the last four years including this year, with the Cavaliers winning each meeting.
James has faced the Celtics seven times in the postseason including this year, with several notable meetings including the showdown between James and Paul Pierce in Game 7 of the 2008 second round, and James’s 45 point performance in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals capped an all-time great postseason for James en route to his first championship over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
What does each team have to do to win?
For the Celtics, the recipe is simple; stop the King. James has been a monster so far this postseason, and while the Celtics certainly can’t stop him from scoring, the hope is they can limit him to perimeter shots instead of drive after drive to the bucket and hopefully hold him to just around 30 per game. The Celtics will need to send multiple fresh bodies at James, with Al Horford, Tatum, Brown and Marcus Morris expected to see time defending him.
The Cavaliers meanwhile, face an equally daunting task. Their defense during the year ranked 29th in the NBA, only ahead of Phoenix. Cleveland must keep the Celtics of the three-point line because in order to keep pace with James the Celtics are going to need to shoot a good percentage from beyond the arc. The Cavaliers need good closeouts and good team defense if they hope to contain the Celtics, especially Tatum who is averaging 18.1 points per game.
The Cavaliers have a triad of players that need to perform if they want to beat the Celtics—Kevin Love, JR Smith, and Kyle Korver. If two of the trio play well in one game, the Cavaliers are usually set up for success. James always does his thing, but his supporting cast showed up more against the Raptors which allowed for some of the pressure to be taken off him.
For the Celtics, it comes down to the two young stars—Brown and Tatum. The young guys have powered the Celtics all year, but James is a different animal altogether, especially in the playoffs. They will need to excel at both ends of the floor, being able to body up on James and the Cavaliers’ sharpshooters while being efficient with their possessions on the offensive end of the floor.
Who has the edge+Prediction
Prediction: Cavaliers in 7
I don’t want to go against the Green Teamers. Celtics pride is alive and well after making is back to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight year. But this is LeBron James we are talking about people. Folks in Beantown are ready to anoint Brad Stevens as the NBA’s premier young coach; this is his time to truly prove it.
Stevens has shown that he can take an undermanned team to lofty heights, but this challenge will most likely prove to be the Celtics’ downfall. Home court does help a little, but at the end of the day James will play bully ball against a mostly small Celtics lineup and dare the Celtics to beat him, which I don’t see happening four times in two weeks.