The Cleveland Cavaliers may be the favorite in the Eastern Conference, but the Boston Celtics have been playing some really solid ball of late under Brad Stevens. Can the Celtics challenge the mighty Cavaliers?
How Cleveland Got Here – Getting LeBron, then figuring everything else out later
As soon as the Cavaliers were able to make bringing LeBron James home a reality, the mindset of this franchise immediately shifted into “championship now”-mode. Cleveland needed to put more players around James to contend, but with much of the summer already over, GM David Griffin had to get creative. First, he traded No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins (and other stuff) for Kevin Love, then had to jump on additional in-season opportunities as they presented themselves. His pair of in-season trades have been what has put the Cavs over the top, with J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert giving Cleveland the offense and defensive help on the wings and the interior that they badly needed during their early-season struggles. The Cavaliers finished the year 34-9 after starting 19-20.
Cavaliers X-factor: Kevin Love
The veteran forward has taken a ton of criticism this year, both from the media and from his own teammate, LeBron himself. Despite what LeBron might say, Love has been a willing participant on a squad with championship aspirations, and he’s certainly more talented than his numbers have shown this season. In his first-ever trip to the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see if Love can find a new way to impact the game that we haven’t seen during the regular season.
How Boston Got Here: Turning it on down the stretch
The Celtics began this season on another half-hearted tank attempt, even trading away Rajon Rondo to the Mavericks in December before his offseason free agency, and then also trading Jeff Green to Memphis. The rest of the team was still extremely young, and coach Brad Stevens was trying to find minutes for all their development projects. Just before the All-Star break, however, this young team’s play started picking up, and after making a deal for Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline, the Celtics’ play kicked up another notch, and they’ve since been one of the East’s best teams. Other veterans like Tyler Zeller and Jae Crowder (who came over in the Rondo trade) have helped this team shift into a winning mindset, and both Stevens and the brass believe this experience will be more valuable than their draft position would have been going forward. (This could have something to do with their huge stockpile of first-round picks as well.)
Celtics X-factor: Isaiah Thomas
Thomas has been the driving force for the Celtics during their playoff run, and he’s going to have put together a ridiculous series for Boston to have any type of chance. Kyrie Irving isn’t a great defensive player, so it’s possible the Cavs might have to slide over someone like Iman Shumpert to handle Thomas, or in a nightmare scenario, LeBron himself. Still, even the most outrageous version of Thomas probably can’t down Cleveland on his own.
Season Series Outcome: 2-2
The Cavaliers won the first two meetings of the season, with one game a 122-121 triumph on Nov. 14 and the next a 110-79 beat down on March 3. The Celtics won the last two matchups in the last week of the season, but Boston was making its playoff push and Cleveland was coasting/resting guys.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 5
The Celtics just don’t have an answer for LeBron, individually or as a team. Even if Boston can find a way to slow down the Cavaliers’ offense, they won’t be able to score enough points at the other end to win. They rank just 18th in the league in offensive rating, and while the Cavs are just 18th in defensive rating, it’s much easier to ramp up your defense come playoff time than it is to find a way of manufacturing points.