The Cleveland Cavaliers, powered by LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and the Toronto Raptors, led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, are the two favorites in the Eastern Conference. But could the Celtics be the sleeper, that dark horse that upsets either team and makes it to the conference finals?
For a team that prides itself on teamwork, equality, and defensive intensity, Boston relies heavily on All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas. The last overall pick in the 2011 draft has proven his doubters wrong and has put together his best season yet. In doing so, he has managed to lead the Celtics to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Thomas holds the Celtics record for most consecutive games leading the team in scoring, logging 18 such games with 20 or more points. Beyond scoring, Thomas is also averaging 6.2 assists per game (tied for 14th in the NBA) and may potentially get a nod on one of the All-NBA teams. The problem for Boston is that if an opponent can shut Thomas down, it will be pretty difficult for the Celtics to manufacture points.
Another thing going for the Celtics is Brad Stevens, who has established himself as one of best coaches in the league. The Celtics benefit from his meticulous game planning and this will likely be even more important in the postseason where Stevens will be able to focus on one team. When an opponent finds a way to attack the Celtics, Stevens and his staff are as capable as just about any other coaching staff to adjust, an understated but important part of playoff basketball.
Stevens has coached Boston into a top team as the Celtics are eighth overall in total point differential and fourth in the Eastern Conference. Additionally, Stevens preaches ball-movement unselfishness and discipline. As a result, the Celtics are sixth in assists per game and rarely turn the ball over. Boston is tied for sixth in assist to turnover ratio with the Atlanta Hawks. Their 1.78 ratio is only behind the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Charlotte Hornets and Dallas Mavericks. This sort of discipline will be especially important in the playoffs, where electric crowds and elevated emotions can lead teams to make careless mistakes. If any team can keep its cool and take advantage of those mistakes, it’s these Celtics under the steady leadership of Stevens.
Hard, swarming defense is a staple of the current Celtics squad and another reason they could make a deep run.
They are fifth in opponent field goal percentage, holding opponents to 43.9 percent (only behind the Hawks, Clippers, Warriors and Spurs). Additionally, they are second in opponent three-point percentage, holding their opponents to only 33.3 percent behind the arc, which ranks only behind the Indiana Pacers (33.1 percent). Both of those defensive metrics are difficult to achieve and maintain over the course of a season and are quite impressive.
The Celtics are great at causing havoc and turnovers. They cause their opponents to turn the ball over a league-high 15.9 times per game. Additionally, they generate the second-most steals per game (9.3), just behind Houston (10.0). However, they don’t get many blocks, as they are 23rd in the league, averaging only 4.2 a game as they don’t have an elite rim protector on their roster. While having a great rim protector isn’t an absolute necessity in creating a strong defense, it is important. Not having a strong rim protector could hurt the Celtics in the postseason.
With an active, disciplined defense and Thomas running the offensive attack, the Celtics have their method for success, but what is their path towards the conference finals?
Path to a deep run out East
Seemingly, the Cavaliers have all but locked up the number one seed, with the Toronto Raptors securely in second. Also, the Detroit Pistons seem to be the seventh seed and the Indiana Pacers are on the verge of securing a playoff berth and keeping the Chicago Bulls out of the postseason. That just leaves the third through sixth seeds to be determined between the Celtics, Hawks, HEAT and Hornets.
As things stands, these teams can only face each other in some combination in the first round. More importantly, the four squads are still vying for only two home-court spots, which is always important in the postseason.
As of now, the Hawks and Celtics are tied (Hawks have the tiebreaker) and the HEAT and Hornets are a game back of them (HEAT have the tiebreaker).
The Celtics have a tough remaining schedule as they still have to play at Atlanta and at home against Charlotte and Miami. These are all games against opponents they are jockeying with for seeding and therefore each team has something to play for.
Meanwhile, the Hawks have that home game against Boston, then go play in Cleveland (who has nothing to play for and might rest players), then in Washington (who has nothing to play for except to play spoiler in the final game of the season).
The HEAT first host the eliminated Orlando Magic, then travel to Detroit (who will still be trying to hold off the Pacers so they don’t have to face Cleveland in the first round), then go to Boston for their final game. The Hornets have two games against eliminated teams in Washington and Orlando and a matchup with the Celtics.
Anything can happen in the final week of the regular season with so many matchups between these organizations jockeying for seeding.
How do the Celtics stack up with these teams?
Boston, of course, wants home-court. But with or without home-court advantage, they’ll be playing one of the three other teams previously mentioned in the first round. So how have they stacked up this year against the potential first-round opponents?
In the Celtics-Hawks matchup, Boston is down 1-2 with one game remaining. In November, the Celtics won by 13 at home, then 11 days later lost in Atlanta by 24 points. The other game was in December where the Celtics lost by eight at home. Unfortunately, this doesn’t tell us much about the matchup since the games were played so long ago. Each team has gone through ups-and-downs, injuries and other issues, so we may not know much about how they stack up until the next time they meet. What we do know is that the Hawks have been firing on all cylinders defensively over the last few months, which could be problematic for the Celtics’ offensive attack.
In the Celtics-HEAT matchup, Boston is up 2-0 with one game remaining. The first game, played back in November, was a 10-point victory and the second was a 12-point victory back in February. Based on this, it would seem Boston has a slight upper-hand, but Erik Spoelstra is another top-tier coach, evidenced by his ability to adapt on the fly after losing All-Star forward Chris Bosh.
In the Celtics/Hornets matchup, Boston is also up 2-0 with one game remaining. Both games were in December pre-Christmas, so there isn’t much to glean, but the Celtics won by five and 13 points.
That’s just the first round. Then logically they’ll either have to face the Cavaliers or the Raptors in the second round, depending on seeding.
The Celtics are 1-2 against the Cavaliers this season including a 12-point December loss, a one-point February victory, and a 17-point March loss. It’s not the greatest matchup for Boston, but they have to face them eventually if the hope to advance. The Cavaliers are a talented, but volatile team. In a potential matchup, the Celtics have to hope that the Cavaliers fail to maximize their huge talent, giving Boston a chance to level the playing field.
Boston is also 1-2 against the Raptors this year. These included a six-point January loss and a 16-point March loss, followed five days later by a 12-point victory. This could be a good matchup for the Celtics. They may prefer either the third (or sixth) seed in order to face the Raptors in the second round. Still, Lowry and DeRozan have been playing better than anyone reasonably expected all season and will be difficult to contain (though the Celtics’ perimeter defenders are better-equipped to handle this assignment than most teams).
Celtics can hang with anyone
The Celtics have the ability to play up to their competition. For instance, Boston almost broke the Warriors’ streak back in December. In Boston, it took 38 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and 2 steals from reigning MVP Stephen Curry and double overtime to preserve the Warriors’ stream (24-0). Draymond Green also had to contribute 24 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, five steals and five blocks. Notably, Klay Thompson was out with a sprained ankle for that game. The Celtics were led by Kelly Olynyk’s 28 points off the bench and five other players were in double figures scoring in a team effort.
The second game was on April 1, at Oracle Arena in Oakland on the second night of a typically brutal road back to back (following a loss in Portland to the Trail Blazers). The Celtics came away with a narrow 109-106, victory snapping the Warriors’ 54-game home winning streak, which dated back to last season. The Celtics were led by Jared Sullinger, Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner, who all had 20 or more points. They were without probably their best defensive and most versatile player, Jae Crowder, who was out due to injury.
Other playoff teams the Celtics have beaten this season include the Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Miami HEAT, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Detroit Pistons and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The list of the current playoff teams the Celtics haven’t beaten at least once this season includes only the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks. And they wouldn’t face either of those teams until a hypothetical Finals matchup.
Considering all of this, it seems fair to reason that the Celtics can be that dark horse in the East. They have a top-level coach in Stevens, an All-Star point guard that leads their offensive attack, versatile perimeter defenders, solid role players and a disciplined approach to the game. They don’t have the star power that most of the other playoff teams have, but with a steady leader in Stevens and an aggressive style of play that could fluster opponents, especially in playoff atmospheres, the Celtics seem to have a viable chance at making a deep playoff run.
NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams
This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.
This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.
As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.
With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.
Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.
Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.
With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.
However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?
Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.
Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.
In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.
So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.
However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.
Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.
At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.
Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.
For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.
On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.
With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.
Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.
Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.
Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success
The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.
The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.
The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.
Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.
He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.
“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”
It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.
Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.
“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”
The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.
This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.
“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”
Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.
While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.
“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”
Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.
For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.
“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”
These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.
This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.
“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”
Is LeBron Enough For Cavs To Get Through The East?
Cleveland’s offense has struggled through the first two games of the playoffs. Can the four-time MVP consistently bail them out? Spencer Davies writes.
After a less-than-encouraging series opener versus the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James responded emphatically and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a bounce back 100-97 victory to even things up at one game apiece.
Scoring the first 13 points of the game itself, The King was a one-man wrecking crew out of the gate and carried that momentum throughout all four quarters of Game 2. His 46 points were James’ second-highest scoring mark between the regular season and the playoffs. In addition, he shot above 70 percent from the field for the sixth time this year.
The four-time MVP pulled down 12 rebounds total, and but all but one of those boards were defensive—the most he’s had since Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago a month ago.
What James did was another classic instance where LeBron reminds us that through all the injuries, drama, and on-court issues, whatever team he’s on always has a chance to go all the way. But having said all of that—can the Cavaliers realistically depend on that kind of spectacular effort for the rest of the postseason? It’s a fair question.
Kevin Love is a solid secondary go-to guy, but he’s struggled to find his rhythm in the first two games. He’s done a solid job defensively between both, but he’s getting banged up and is dealing with knocked knees and a reported torn thumb ligament in the same hand he broke earlier in the season.
Love has admitted that he’d like more post touches instead of strictly hanging out on the perimeter, but it’s on him to demand the ball more and he knows it. But finding that flow can be challenging when James has it going and is in all-out attack mode.
Kyle Korver came to the rescue for Cleveland as the only shooter that consistently converted on open looks. Outside of those three, and maybe J.R. Smith, really, there hasn’t been a tangible threat that’s a part of the offense during this series.
We all pondered whether or not the “new guys” would be able to step up when their respective numbers were called. So far, that hasn’t been the case for the most part.
Jordan Clarkson looks rushed with tunnel vision. Rodney Hood has had good body language out there, but seems reluctant to shoot off dribble hand-offs and is second-guessing what he wants to do. The hustle and effort from Larry Nance Jr. is obvious, but he’s also a good bet to get into foul trouble. Plus, he’s had some struggles on an island against Pacer guards.
As for George Hill, the good news is the impact on the floor just based on his mere presence on both ends (game-high +16 on Wednesday), but he hasn’t really done any scoring and fouled out of Game 2.
Maybe these things change on the road, who knows. But those four, the rest of the rotation, absolutely have to step up in order for the Cavaliers to win this series and fend off this hungry Indiana group, which brings us to another point.
Let’s not forget, the offensive issues aren’t simply because of themselves. After all, the Cavs were a team that had little trouble scoring the basketball in the regular season, so give a ton of credit to the Pacers’ scheme and McMillan’s teachings to play hard-nosed.
Unlike many teams in the league, the strategy for them is to pressure the ball and avoid switches as much as possible on screens. The more they go over the pick and stick on their assignments, the better chance they have of forcing a bad shot or a turnover. That’s what happened in Game 1 and in the majority of the second half of Game 2.
Cleveland has also somewhat surprisingly brought the fight on defense as well. In the first two contests of the series, they’ve allowed under 100 points. Lue’s said multiple times that they’re willing to give up the interior buckets in order to secure the outside, and it’s worked. It doesn’t seem smart when there’s a yellow-colored layup line going on at times, but it certainly paid off by only allowing 34 percent of Indiana’s threes to go down.
Still, looking ahead to what the Cavaliers can do in the playoffs as a whole, it doesn’t bode well. They’re not only locked in a tug-of-war with Indiana, but if they get past them, they could have a Toronto Raptors group chomping at the bit for revenge.
If they’re having this much trouble in the first round, what should make us believe they can barrel through the Eastern Conference as they’ve done in the past?
It’s not quite as obvious or as bad as Cleveland’s 2007 version of James and the rest, but it feels eerily similar for as much as he’s put the team on his back so far. The organization better hope improvement comes fast from his supporting cast, or else it could be a longer summer than they’d hoped for.