NBA Playoffs 2018: The Celtics and Cavs Meet Again
What’s the Backstory?
Well, here we are again. The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers will meet for the second time in as many years in the Eastern Conference Finals (their third overall meeting in the past four postseason). While it’s no surprise LeBron James and the Cavs find themselves in position to make their fourth consecutive NBA Finals (it would be James eighth (!!!) as a player), the Celtics trip has been fraught with peril. In case you died or weren’t on the planet Earth during the regular season here is a quick review: Gordon Hayward turned his foot backwards, Kyrie Irving’s knee exploded, Marcus Smart missed extended time, Jayson Tatum proved again Danny Ainge is the smartest GM in the NBA, and Brad Stevens is God in a suit with a modest haircut.
The Celtics were essentially counted out from even reaching this round about six minutes into their season… and again when Kyrie went out… and again when Smart went out…and again after the Sixers were dubbed the greatest team ever without winning a goddamn thing.
And to be fair, the Cavs reaching it wasn’t a given either until they flipped half their roster over in February and LeBron James decided he would find yet another way to blow our minds in putting forth arguably the best single effort in a playoff EVER, in his 14th season. Also, they played the Raptors in the second round, which essentially is like handing any team a free ticket to the ECF.
Last year’s ECF played out the way everyone expected with the Celtics being exposed for the strawman everyone knew they were. The better Cavs roster feasted and easily dispatched Boston in 5 games. But while this year hasn’t gone per plan, this Celtics team is better than last year's and this Cavs team, not nearly as powerful.
Two teams in flux crossing paths for what could be any East teams final chance to hand LBJ his first Eastern playoff series loss since 2010. That team, by the way, was the Celtics who historically as a franchise have been at least a minimal pain in the ass for LBJ. C’s tossed the Cavs in ’08 and again in ’10, chasing LeBron from Cleveland in the process. They pushed the Heat to the brink in the ECF in ’12, tried to prevent him from going in ’15 by breaking Kevin Love’s shoulder, and traded him a tiny point guard with a f*****-up hip in exchange for one of the best point guards in the league.
The Celtics have been anything but a cakewalk for LeBron, even bringing him to refer to the Big 3 era Celtics as “that team” to the press. The irony and implications in this series may be the most intriguing aspect with LeBron all but out the door in Cleveland and the Celtics poised to dominate the East for at least the next 3 years. One cannot ignore that smell in the air as the shoe is securely fastened to the other foot in this context.
LeBron James vs. Boston D
The greatest player in the world deserves his own topical exploration. Just when you though the homie LBJ couldn’t do anything else to make you say “Holy F***!!!”, he has done it again in these playoffs. 34.3 points per game, 9 assists per game , 9.5 rebounds per game stat line is a testament to James’ Thanos like grip on this year’s playoffs. While his powers were not as needed in the Toronto series, because again, it’s the Raptors and the calendar says May, without LeBron’s first-round performance against the Indiana Pacers, the Cavs would most likely have been bounced early.
Not that he wasn’t brilliant against Toronto because he was, but the ability to take over a series when the rest of his team is mired in tough matchups like in the Pacers series, should be huge in the ECF. But Boston has a couple things working in their favor that Toronto and Indiana didn’t in their quest to ground LBJ.
First off, Boston is stocked with defenders that have had success against James in the past. Jaylen Brown looked great against him in last year’s series and in the three regular season meetings this year. Marcus Smart is Marcus Smart. And guys like Semi Ojeleye and Aaron Baynes have the body build to contend with James’ physical strength. LeBron has looked unstoppable in various points in the postseason, even against two of the more defensively efficient teams but the Celtics are top dog on that side of the ball.
The C’s focus should be to keep LeBron on the outside as amid all his offensive majesty, he is shooting poorly from 3 at 28 percent. Boston’s physicality plus whatever crazy scheme Stevens cooks up in his underground laboratory should be enough to make LeBron seem somewhat human in stretches.
The Cavs offense goes through him and that’s obvious when looking at his Box-Score +/- at 16.2 and while stopping him completely is impossible, the Celtics stand the best chance to limit his powers more than any other team the Cavs have faced. And since we’re talking about the Celtics D…
Celtics D vs. Everyone Not named LeBron James
The Celtics offense lives and dies with the hot hand, although it is becoming increasingly obvious that for the remainder of the 2018 season, that hand belongs to Jayson Tatum. With that said, the C's have plenty of other guys who can score. What I mean is the Celtics should not have any shortage of offensive opportunities with the Cavs being ranked near the bottom of most defensive categories.
The Celtics best chance to win this series lies in their defense. Looking at the playoff numbers, the other members of the Cavs have been efficient in terms of scoring but the numbers are partially an illusion when looking at the resources Indy and Toronto had to employ to even attempt to slow James.
By focusing on James, it has left easy opportunities for players like Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, and JR Smith to score. The Celtics won’t be as easy to exploit due to their defensive prowess and physicality. Marcus Morris even commented on how Toronto’s defense lacked any real physicality in the series against Cleveland, something he guaranteed Boston won’t have a problem bringing to the fight.
Love is softer than butter left on the counter and Al Horford has matched up well against him historically. Korver doesn’t do much other than spot-up beyond the arc but with the Celtics bringing the mosh, how well will the 36-year old’s body and stamina hold up?
James has been attempting 23 field-goals per game, a number I don’t expect to change much in this series but the biggest difference will show when he defers to his teammates. The easy looks will be pretty much erased and the ones they get, the Cavs are going to have to work harder for than at any other time in the playoffs.
Another concern for the Cavs other than being faced with such a high energy, slam dancing defense is the overall age of the Celtics. As I mentioned earlier, along with Korver, the Cavs have an age issue with many of the starters being 30+. And while bringing in younger players was the main objective of the mid-season roster turnover, the young players they received are not well experienced in terms of playoff ball and don’t come anywhere close in terms of talent when matched up against the C’s young guys. Despite this, the Celtics defense needs to bring it 100% for 48 minutes in every game if they want a chance to even sniff the Finals.
Scary Terry Could Be the X Factor
The marquee matchup was supposed to be Kyrie Irving vs. his old squad (or what’s left of them) but in the wake of his loss, Terry Rozier has been better than serviceable; he’s looked like a top 10 point guard through out the 2018 playoffs. He bested Drew Bledsoe… I mean Eric, in the first round and didn’t seem to be phased by the size difference between him and Simmons against Philly. While he faded in portions of the Bucks series as he has the tendency to take too many pull-up threes when his shot is cold, along with trying to do too much by with the ball, Rozier has had moments of pure bliss. His speed paired with his understanding of Steven’s game plan makes Scary Terry really scary when you look at who the Cavs are pairing up against him. At this moment, right now, Rozier is a better player than George Hill and Jose Calderon, the two PG’s the Cavs have started throughout the playoffs. Rozier’s tendency to push the ball and get red-hot from three could have significant impacts in the series.
Kevin Love as Robin
Increasingly, Kevin Love has looked like the number two option to LeBron as the playoffs have dragged on. Part of it has to do with Love excelling in that stretch 5 position and possessing a good range around the arc leading to open shots when defenses collapse on the middle in attempt to stop LeBron from getting to the rim. The NBA Sphere has fallen out of love with Kevin (too cheesy?) since coming to Cleveland and being exposed as a good starter vs. the bona fide star we mistook him for in Minnesota. And there isn’t a single thing wrong with that as Love seems to have found a comfort-ability this season that was sorely lacking in his previous ones in Cleveland. Shooting 38 percent from 3 with a 23 percent usage rate, Love is finding himself with ball in hand more than any other starter except for LeBron. While that numbers aren’t there statistically to laud over, Love veteran presence and the ability to promote solid ball movement along the perimeter should aid in the Cavs quest to vanquish the C’s yet again.
I don’t want to beat this hot topic into the ground but it needs to be addressed. The Celtics are great on defense and have plenty of guys that can score but no one has been as important in the postseason on offense than Jayson Tatum. 20 years old, in his first postseason, Tatum has scored 20 points+ in his last 7 games. Tatum can shoot the three, something that faded from the beginning of the year but reappeared as the playoffs came into focus.
Where Tatum has excelled is in driving the lane with an explosive first step. Tatum loves to catch and run right up the lane almost in step with the reception of the ball. This move combined with his natural speed and ability to change his shot mid layup has left a lot of opposing players scratching their heads.
Without Tatum, the Celtics most certainly would have never made it through Milwaukee (Bet.) and would have had a hell of a tougher time with Philly. Not only is he a point producer, his basketball IQ in terms of knowing where to go when with and without the ball has been maybe his greatest asset in the playoffs t
The Cavs have their own young players such as Larry Nance but the young players for Boston overshadow any of the Cavs young guys. Tatum’s presence in the series should be felt and if by chance any type of normal rookie struggles should emerge, the Celtics will be in a tough spot going forward against the Cavs.
Lue Vs. Stevens
While Stevens will be given heaps of praise for again navigating a team to a place that should have not reached this year, Tyronn Lue should be given some credit in where he has been able to lead the Cavs. While the Cavs got younger and more athletic after their trade binge in February, the players they received were not necessarily more talented. Lue deserves credit for being able to put these pieces together into some sort of semblance of a team despite only playing around 30 games together. It’s always easier when you have the best player in the world but in all fairness without Lue out-coaching Dwane Casey in the Toronto series, the Cavs may have not had such an easy time. Lue is not talked about a lot as a top tier coach but having learned as an assistant under Doc Rivers, Lue is still a formidable challenge for Stevens and the Celtics. While Lue may not be as innovative and savvy as Stevens, his ability to construct solid game plans against any opponent is worth mentioning.
As talented as the Celtics are, the Cavs dwarf them in experience on the floor, something I thing Lue will recognize and employ as a tactic against them in attempt to frustrate the Celtics younger players. In the last regular season meeting on February 11, the first game for the Cavs with their young set, Lue managed to best Stevens in their game of chess.
As for Stevens, we all know he learned from the mistakes of this game which I think was an underestimate of what the Cavs had at the time. Stevens will no doubt have a new game-plan which should involve sending multiple defenders at James as a tactic to never let him get comfortable and exploit the weaker areas of the Cavs roster especially at the point position. Expect both coaches to dig deep into their bags of tricks in this series
Soooooo…Who Ya Got?
While the Celtics are extremely talented and poised for an amazing future, I believe the Cavs have enough fire power between James and the rest of the roster to best the C’s. The Celtics will not be as overmatched against them as they have been in years past but LeBron is having one of the greatest postseasons of all time and the parts around him are complimentary enough to get the job done. The C’s will gain invaluable experience in this series before settling in as the team to beat in the East but I just don’t think it will be enough as I am sure James would love nothing more than have another shot to bring a title home to Cleveland. None the less, the series should be ultra-competitive and entertaining as all hell. Cavs in 6 is the call.