Could the Celtics Beat the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals?
At the start of this NBA season, fans were fed the same notion again and again: when June comes, it will be Cavs-Warriors III. Outside of the Spurs and Pop with his never-ending bag of tricks stealing the West from Golden State, it almost seemed improbable to conjure any other image because in the East, it was Cleveland. End of story. And who could argue with that logic? They have rolled through their last two playoff appearances with a 30-11 record including four sweeps, two conference championships, and a NBA title. But when you’re a team from Cleveland, bad things tend to happen and for the Cavs, some shit has happened: First, they lost JR Smith. Then, Kevin “Mr. Glass” Love, busted up his knee. Then everyone figured out their bench really, really, really, sucked, anchored by such standouts as Kay Fedler, Deandre Liggins, and some guy who sort of looks like Richard Jefferson. They traded for Kyle Korver, who proceeded to look old and injure his foot, leaving him in and out of the line-up for the past few weeks. They signed Deron Williams, who got also got hurt, and Andrew Bogut, who, you know, played two minutes in a Cleveland uniform before fracturing his tibia, sidelining him for the rest of the season. And now Kyrie Irving’s knee is bothering him and Iman Shumpert is battling a shoulder sprain. In short, Cleveland’s victory lap season has not gone to plan. While they are continuing to win, the team is literally being held together by a big old piece of LeBron-shaped chewing gum who is finding ways to redefine his play in his thirteenth season with career highs in assists and scoring 25+ PPG for a sixth consecutive season.
While Cleveland keeps sending players to the infirmary and doubling up on LeBron’s workload, the Boston Celtics keep finding ways to win. Apart from everyone’s favorite little guy and breakout superstar of 2017, Isaiah Thomas, and veteran Al Horford, the Celtics have relied on a mix of young talent, when based on their age and experience, is the best youth movement in the league. Jaylen Brown is averaging 11 PPG as a rookie off the bench, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley are defensive terrorists, and guys like Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko are contributing in situations when it is least expected. All of this has led the Celtics to 44 wins so far and a shot to win the Atlantic Division. When you cross Boston’s success with Cleveland’s misfortune, you get a Celtics team that is trailing the Cavs by two games for the one seed in the East as we near the end of March. If you told me last October that Boston had a chance to grab a one seed this year, I would have rolled my eyes so hard they would have come out my ears but here we are.
The C’s and Cavs have met three times this year so far. The first two were Cleveland wins by six points including a win on December 29th that essentially ended on a questionable kicked ball violation in the final thirty seconds in a two-point game. One thing painfully obvious in these matches is that when Love, LeBron, and Kyrie are on the floor, it doesn’t matter who else plays for the Cavs or the Celtics for that matter. In Cleveland’s two wins, they accounted for 2/3’s of all the points scored with all three posting double-doubles in the second meeting. After Love’s injury, they met for a raucous affair at the beginning of March where the C’s pulled out their first victory against King James and crew. Without Love, it seems the Celtics are greater in the sum of their parts then Cleveland with Boston’s bench being the big X-factor. While maybe not the biggest kid on the block, the Celtics have a solid build from top to bottom, a strength in numbers type of roster. Players four through ten, in terms of depth, are all about the same: average players who are very capable of above average stretches of basketball, let it be for one quarter, one game, or one week. Finding these guys on the right nights has been a large part of why the C’s keep winning and why they beat the Cavs earlier this month. While the Cavs roster has a sexier look in name power at the top of the rotation, the Celts have assembled a team resembling its home city’s underdog New England working class roots. If the C’s and Cavs meet in the playoffs, could Boston best them? A variety of factors could lead to different outcomes.
Many scenarios could play out over the last few weeks of the season but it makes sense to start with playoff seeding and what it can potentially mean to a Cavs/Boston series. It’s a pretty safe gamble that the current top four teams in the East will end up seeded 1-4, one way of the other. I see it ending up with Cleveland at 1, Washington or Boston at 2 and 3, and Toronto, 4. These teams should roll through their respective first-round opponents who all dwell on a lower tier of basketball existence. This would leave Boston vs Washington and Toronto Vs. Cleveland. In this scenario, it would be a bloody bare-knuckle brawl in the former of these two series. The Wizards, who have been surging in the last half of the season, much like the Celtics, are a tough, physical team that have mixed it up with extracurricular activities against the C’s on more than one occasion including a mid court post-game scrap on January 11th between Jae Crowder and John Wall. As much as I would love to watch this series, it would be scary violent. We are talking Game of Thrones style mayhem. Swords, beheadings and Marcus Smart riding a battle wolf after Bradley Beal; all of this would happen with blood sprayed from end line to end line. If the Celtics were to get through, it would be in no less than seven and the damage would be severe. Cleveland would clean up the scraps after what should be an easy series against a Toronto team that has been average at best since the All-Star break. Even if Cleveland isn’t at full strength but has Irving and Love playing at 85% or better, the Celtics wouldn’t stand a chance after their death match against the Wiz. A mostly healthy Cavs team paired with the war waged in the previous round would leave Boston a tall order to fill. I’d give them six or seven games but I think they would fall short in the end.
But say the seeding ends up in a way where Boston plays Toronto and Cleveland plays the Wiz. It could be a different outcome altogether. If the Wiz take their hard-bodied style to Cavs, it’s going to wear them down and expose what may be lingering injuries. Healthy Cavs, Cleveland prevails in 6 or 7, a Cavs team with an injury to Love or Irving, maybe doesn’t win the series at all. But for the sake of argument, say they do. They would come up against a C’s team coming off a series with a much less physical opponent. It essentially puts each team in opposite positions with the Cavs being the beat down hot mess and the Celts coming in a little less strained, ready to dish out their own brand of punishment. No doubt the Raptors series would try the C’s, as the Raptors have gone 3-1 against them in the regular season but as noted earlier, Toronto’s play has fallen off and I am adamant the Celtics have learned from their losses. If Cleveland is still snake bitten with injuries new or old, the Celtics would have the edge, taking the Cavs in a lengthy and entertaining series that would go no less than 6.
If the Cavs are healthy for the most part, there is another factor that could help the Celtics prevail outside of hypothetical playoff meetings. The amount of minutes the Cavs have played as a team over the last three seasons is monumental and I’m betting they will get tired come late May. Even with Love and Kyrie at that hypothetical 85%, the minutes these guys have played are going to catch up with them at some point. The Cavs played 41 extra games over the last two years and if they play for the ECF, that would bring that total closer to 60 for Irving, Tristan Thompson and Smith. LeBron has even more miles on his legs. Dating back to his first year with the Heat, he has played a full 126 extra games over the last six seasons. Again, if the Cavs play in the ECF this year, that puts LeBron at almost TWO FULL SEASONS more than almost any other player in that same time span. I know these dudes are fit but these minutes add up and with as injury prone as the Cavs have been this year, this matters in a series against a team as young and hungry as the C’s.
Do I think the Celtics can beat the Cavs in a playoff series? Essentially, yes. Am I saying seeding, playoff matchups, and minutes played are all that would matter in a Cleveland Vs Boston ECF? Of course, not. Pound for pound, Cleveland is still a better team than Boston and with one more regular season matchup looming, we will get one more chance to analyze this matchup. Facts are facts and despite the Celtics being one of the best six or seven teams in the league, they still are a step behind the upper three without a doubt. Cleveland’s star power is too much for Boston as it is. Boston can ball with the best of them but this version of the C’s can’t best the Cavs without a little help from factors outside of their control. The guys in green aren’t quite there yet but with a little bit of that old Irish Boston luck, it is not impossible that the Final’s logo could be imprinted on a few pieces of Garden parquet come June giving the C’s a real chance to raise banner 18.