The Eastern Conference Finals are finally here. The #2-seed Cleveland Cavaliers have been waiting for a while, and now they are going against the #1-seed Boston Celtics. The Cavaliers swept the Toronto Raptors in their semifinal series to get a bunch of rest. LeBron James played like an MVP on both ends of the floor, and the Cavs were on fire from three point land. On the other end of the spectrum, the Celtics just beat the Washington Wizards in seven games. The backcourt of Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley paced the C’s, and their bench was the difference at home. This Cleveland Cavaliers vs Boston Celtics series preview breaks down how a matchup between the East’s top two seeds should shake out.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs Boston Celtics Series Preview
At First Glance
These two teams have had different paths to this point. The Cavs have had a relatively easy first two rounds, aside from some moments against the Indiana Pacers. They are firing on all cylinders right now, and look like the class of the East. The Celtics have had to work hard to get here, as they beat the Chicago Bulls in six games in the first round to go along with defeating Washington in seven.
Cleveland won three out of four against Boston in the regular season. Two of those were close finishes early on in the season in Cleveland, and the most recent was a blowout victory in Boston. We’ll see if Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has a few wrinkles up his sleeve to catch the well-rested Cavs off guard early on in the series.
Two Offenses On A Roll
Both of these ball clubs want to keep the ball hot, and get open threes. The Cavs have scored the most points per game of any East playoff team (per nba.com). Cleveland leads playoff teams in field goal rate (49.0%), too. LeBron is averaging 34.4 points on 55.7% shooting, and his dominance has opened up everybody else on the perimeter. The Cavs have made the most threes per game of any playoff team (14.4) and have been the most accurate from deep (43.4% three point rate).
Kyle Korver is going to be a handful for Boston off-ball, as he’s averaging 7.8 points per game and shooting 48.5% from three (per nba.com). Channing Frye, J.R. Smith, and Kevin Love are nothing to sneeze at from deep, either. Coupled with the ridiculous handle of Kyrie Irving, I don’t know how you contain all those options.
Let’s not dismiss what Boston has done either. The C’s have gotten a good distribution of scoring from their starters and bench, as their passing has led to great looks. Boston leads all playoff teams in assists per game (27.3), and assist rate (70.4%), per nba.com. Their team offense has gotten wide-open looks from three. The C’s are second to only Cleveland in three point makes per game among playoff teams (13.1).
Al Horford has provided a huge lift to Boston’s offense throughout this year, as he’s likely the best passing big man in the NBA. A prime benefactor of open looks from ball movement was Kelly Olynyk yesterday, who had 26 points off the bench as the Celtics advanced past the Wizards. They’ll need production like that from their bench in every game.
Does Kyrie Erupt?
If the Celtics are going to have a chance, they’ll need to keep Irving in check. Fortunately for Boston, he hasn’t gotten going yet. He’s only shooting 39.9%, but if he gets cooking, watch out. “Uncle Drew” is one of the best isolation players in the game, and I don’t expect his shooting woes to continue for long stretches. Boston’s Bradley is one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, but I wouldn’t expect him to “stop” Irving.
The problem for Boston is if Irving heats up, then they have focus on him more. Combined with the obvious attention drawn to James, what will Boston decide to give up? You have to stay glued to the three point specialists like Korver and Love, too. Irving’s full arsenal has not been on display to this point in the postseason. If he scores more like how he did in the regular season (25.2 points per game with a 58.0% true shooting rate), the Celtics will be in for a rough series.
Both benches are going to be crucial. That’s really no surprise in the Eastern Conference Finals, either. To get to this point, you need both talent and depth. These two squads have gotten quality production from their benches in the playoffs so far. The Cavs have so many shooters to deploy at all times. As long as they have LeBron out there, they have countless options offensively. He is playing at a different level right now, and it’s making all of his teammates better and more efficient.
Combined with the perimeter shooting of players like Korver, Frye, and even backup point guard Deron Williams, the Celtics will need to put a plethora of bodies on Tristan Thompson. Amir Johnson will need to play meaningful minutes for Boston, as they don’t have much inside presence to contain Thompson in the offensive rebounding department.
That said, the Celtics must win the hustle battles. Guard Marcus Smart is as gritty as they come, and they’ll need his energy both at home and on the road. He makes so many winning plays for this Celtics team; he’s always on the floor getting loose balls and is a very physical defender. He had a plus/minus of +14 in Game 7 against Washington (per ESPN).
In addition, rookie Jaylen Brown seems to be coming along for the C’s. They are going to need him to be efficient with his scoring offensively to go along with his athleticism and versatility defensively. Another 26-point night from Olynyk might be a stretch, but Boston does have the bench depth to match up with Cleveland if they are disciplined on both ends. The key for the C’s is their bench being effective on the road as well. They were a case of Jekyll and Hyde against the Wizards.
To me, there is not much of a contest here. Cleveland has the mismatches offensively with James all over the floor. Boston’s Jae Crowder is an exceptional wing defender, but LeBron will have his way with him due to his speed and ability to break down the Celtics defense. Let’s not dismiss Love’s post presence, either. The Celtics simply don’t have the rim protection and rebounding presence needed to stop Cleveland from dominating this series.
Thompson is going to have a field day on the offensive glass; Boston has been the worst defensive rebounding team in the East playoffs (per nba.com). The problem is the Celtics have great individual defenders, but not enough consistent two-way players to realistically beat the Cavs four times out of seven games. Along with that, their best player (Thomas), has been one of the league’s biggest defensive liabilities throughout the whole season. I expect Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue to isolate him often, and make him work hard defensively.
These pesky, well-coached Celtics are a tough, gritty club. They just don’t have the size and shooting the Cavs have (along with that LeBron guy). There’s not much Boston can do schematically to hang with the Cavs and unfortunately they can’t outscore them, which is the best way to beat Cleveland. Cleveland sweeps this round, too.