#2 – Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James’ quest for a third ring and his first with the Cavaliers will begin this postseason against the Boston Celtics. The new-look Cavaliers have had the better part of three months to prepare for the start of the playoffs. The team looks different than it did when James first returned to the Cavaliers, since the front office executed different trades to acquire J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov in January.
Since acquiring Smith, Shumpert and Mozgov at the beginning of the new year, only the Golden State Warriors have racked up more wins. The Eastern Conference’s two seed will be heading into the playoffs as having the best odds of winning the championship, according to Bovada, despite having just the seventh-best record in the league. The Cavaliers will be led by James as the four-time Most Valuable Player will be making his 10th appearance in the postseason.
One of the big storylines throughout the season has been the lack of playoff experience of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, as the trio all have yet to play in a single postseason game. The expectations placed upon the Cavaliers this season have been sky-high and it will be imperative that they all have impressive performances to help James shoulder the load. Despite those key players making their debuts in the playoffs, the team also has veterans in Brendan Haywood, James Jones, Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and Kendrick Perkins who can help them along the long road of the playoffs.
The Cavaliers are returning to the playoffs for the first time since James left Cleveland and should have no problem advancing out of the first round.
#7 – Boston Celtics
Meanwhile, the Celtics are returning to the postseason after a one-year absence and for the first time under head coach Brad Stevens. This playoff series features two of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference as the Celtics had the second-best record (20-11) since the All-Star break while the Cavaliers had the best record over that span (20-7). The Celtics were 11 games under .500 at the break and in 10th place, but since then they have battled back led by newly-acquired point guard Isaiah Thomas. The Celtics acquired Thomas in the final minutes before the trade deadline on February 19 and Thomas has been one of the Celtics’ best players, as his 19 points per game leads the team since the break.
The Celtics will have their hands full in trying to slow down a stacked Cavaliers team. The two teams split the regular season series at two wins each, but the Cavaliers opted to rest Irving in the Celtics’ 99-90 win last Friday and they also rested James, Irving, Love and Smith during the Celtics’ 117-78 win on Sunday. The Celtics were able to hang around with the Cavaliers in the first game the two played this season as they lost by just one point despite 41 points from James and 27 points from Irving. In order for the Celtics to have a chance in this seven-game series, their defense will have to be just as good as it’s been during the second half of the season. Since Feb. 2, the Celtics had the eighth-best defensive rating in the league and held opponents to 98.4 points per game, which was 11th-best. This defense, combined with their improved offense will be crucial in order for the C’s to have a chance.
Who Wins Game 1?
The Cavaliers should open up the series with an easy win at home. Quicken Loans Arena will be electric for the first playoff game in five years and should present a tough environment for the younger Celtics squad. The Cavaliers went 31-10 this season on their home court and there’s no reason to believe they won’t dominate there again in the playoffs.
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