For those who believe the regular season doesn’t matter, we’re about to find out if your claim is true or not.
With a dreadful end to March and April as a whole, the Cleveland Cavaliers surrendered the top overall seed and home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference to the Boston Celtics. Despite taking two completely different paths to get there, these two teams will battle it out in the conference finals to determine who gets a shot at an NBA Championship.
It’ll be the first time that Boston hosts the Cavaliers in the East Finals since 1976. In addition, it’ll also be the second time that LeBron James has met “The Green” in the stepping stone series to the NBA Finals.
Five years ago with the Miami HEAT, James battled it out in a memorable bout with Paul Pierce for seven games. He would prevail, and go on to win the first league title in his illustrious career.
The outcome spelled the end of the road for the infamous big three of Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, and sent the Celtics into a major rebuild for years to come. Fast forward to Wednesday night, and the franchise once again has a shot at the NBA’s greatest with a completely revamped group of young, talented players.
It’s been an emotional time for Boston. One month ago, the day before the team’s postseason got underway, Chyna Thomas—the younger sister of All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas—was killed in a one-car accident in Washington. Somehow, some way, Thomas is playing through the pain to attempt to take his mind off of the tragedy. Basketball is truly his getaway.
The Celtics have rallied behind Thomas and are playing with a ton of passion and heart to continue to fight for their fearless leader.
Al Horford is taking what defenses are giving him and making them pay. Avery Bradley, his right-hand man, came to life against the Wizards. Marcus Smart is out-muscling and out-hustling his competition to give Brad Stevens a boost in energy off the bench. Kelly Olynyk became a made man in Boston by unlikely carrying the team to victory in Game 7.
They’re technically the number one seed in the East, but they also know almost everybody in the league doesn’t see them as the best team in their conference.
Whether that is or isn’t true, there is a huge reason why that’s the current narrative, and it’s got to do with who’s standing in their way. The Cavaliers were an absolute mess going into the playoffs, but since they’ve started they’ve been arguably the best team in the entire league.
The body language on the floor is much better. The crispness of the ball movement is back. The defensive intensity is up. The threes are going down. The hustle to go after the 50/50 balls is there.
James is on a whole other level now than he’s ever been on in the postseason. As he’s gotten more mature, so has his game. He’s still attacking the basket at will as he always has, but now he’s got the ability to pull up from the perimeter any time he wants to. He’s aggressive, but he’s also taking great care of the basketball. And defensively, he’s always going to play those passing lanes and gets one chase down block per game it seems.
If LeBron isn’t dangerous enough, what about the players surrounding him in Tyronn Lue’s bench lineup? The sharpshooters just waiting for the drive and kick—Channing Frye and Kyle Korver—really got going in the last few games against Toronto. The veteran they picked up via waivers, Deron Williams, is the maestro of this unit, and Iman Shumpert provides the shut down on-ball defense.
This all goes without mentioning Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, who have been relatively quiet in the playoffs as the others have stepped up. Though averaging nearly 24 points per game in eight games, Irving in particular has shot poorly, but has become selfless in sharing the ball. Quite frankly, he has done a decent job of locking up his opponents as well.
With Love, on the other hand, the home/road splits have told the story for his offensive success. Away from Quicken Loans Arena, the big man is shooting less than 35 percent from the floor and isn’t even attempting two shots per game at the free throw line.
However, in the four games he’s played in Cleveland, Love is averaging over 17 points per game on over 52 percent shooting. In addition, he’s getting to the line five more times than on the road. These numbers are clearly telling of how more comfortable he is at home.
Expect Love to be a factor in this series the whole way, though, as Lue publicly stated he wants to get him more involved. Don’t forget about the separated shoulder incident with Olynyk the last time these franchises clashed in the first round a couple of years ago.
SEASON SERIES: CLE 3-1
ALL-TIME PLAYOFF HEAD-TO-HEAD SERIES: BOS 4-2
LAST MEETING: 2015 R1: CLE 4-0
Who Wins Game 1?
The Celtics are coming off an emotional win to get to this point, while the Cavaliers haven’t played in over a week. That’s a long time to be resting and awaiting your next opponent, and Boston is staying put and bringing in a lot of confidence.
The question will be how long they can sustain it. James has declared in the past that he absolutely prefers playing on the road in the playoffs, acting as a silencer.
This one ultimately will come down to two factors: rebounding and bench play. Can Al Horford, whose one flaw has been hitting the glass, keep Tristan Thompson off the boards? His previous experiences against the Cavaliers indicates no, but maybe a change of scenery can do the trick.
As far as second units go, Cleveland has gotten contributions from their reserves consistently. With their youth, Boston can be a bit of a wildcard because they depend on it more to provide a spark.
The Celtics can very well try and will their way to a Game 1 victory riding their wave of momentum, but something about the way the Cavaliers have conducted themselves in the playoffs thus far points to a different outcome.
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