After fighting through a tough seven game series against the Washington Wizards, the Boston Celtics face off against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
For the Celtics, it’s their first Conference Finals appearance since 2012, where they lost to the Miami Heat.
For Cleveland, they are in their third straight Conference Finals, and are led by LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
Despite the Celtics earning the #1 seed in the East, the Cavaliers are heavily favored in this series, thanks to the dominance and greatness of LeBron and Co. The Cavaliers stumbled down the stretch, but have swept their first two series in these playoffs.
So what needs to happen for the Celtics to pull off the series upset and advance to another NBA Finals?
First off, like any time talking about this Celtics team, it’s a 1-10 effort. Anybody who sees the floor knows their role on the court. Secondly, there is no “let LeBron James beat you” because he will by dropping 45 without dripping a sweat. James plays his best against Boston, in Boston. As for Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, both could be in for a big series, with Boston’s big men not being physical enough to handle them for 40 minutes a game. Look for them to control the paint dominate the boards, and for Love, be able to find himself open for open jumpers.
That being said, limiting Kyrie Irving has to be the primary objective for the Celtics defensively. Mostly because asking this team to be physical in the paint and control the glass is like asking a fish to climb a tree, it just won’t happen.
Avery Bradley did a good job of wearing out Bradley Beal and John Wall in the semifinals, even though their numbers say otherwise. Bradley, per usual, did a great job of fighting through screens and contesting shots. He’ll likely be asked to stay with Irving for 35 minutes a night.
The Cavs use plenty of isolation, which will give fans plenty of opportunities to see what type of dogging style Bradley plays with.
Isaiah Thomas will get his in this series, with neither Kyrie Irving nor J.R. Smith being elite defenders on the perimeter. Isaiah has seen his numbers dip in the postseason, but he’s still the only off-the-dribble threat the Celtics have.
The difference maker in the semifinals was Al Horford. After starting the year off slowly, he’s beginning to show that the $113 million dished out to bring him to Boston might be worth it. He did a little bit of everything as the second fiddle. He put up 16.7 points while shooting a scorching hot 67% from the field and 60% from three. He came in clutch in game six, baking home a shot to give the C’s the lead, only to have John Wall match him at the other end. His passing ability and fit in the system really paid off in that series, as he was constantly popping for wide open threes as well as dishing out over five assists.
Offense shouldn’t be a problem for Boston, as the Cavs are porous defensively. However, Cleveland knows how to fill it up, and does it by firing away threes at will. Which is why Marcus Smart is the X-Factor for the Celtics in this series (yes, I know Kelly Olynyk scored 26 in game seven).
With Cleveland’s offensive punch, Smart will be relied on heavily to guard at least three positions throughout the series, especially when the Celtics decide to go small. He provides a security blanket for Avery Bradley in case of foul trouble or an off night. He can use his physicality and footspeed to disrupt Kyrie Irving and has the fight in him to get through off-ball screens and close out on shooters like J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver.
For Cleveland, their X-Factor is Channing Frye. His ability to knock down threes and stretch the floor will keep Boston on their heels defensively. He can pull another body away from the rim, which may give Cleveland even more of an advantage on the glass. As he roams the three-point line, driving lanes will open up for James and Irving to finish at the rim.
Getting home court advantage was a nice step for the Celtics, and the Green Teamers will certainly show up in full force and full throat for each game in the Garden. Even if the Celtics cover these keys, they’ll still have their backs up against the wall. I hate to sound pessimistic, but I’m a realist. The Celtics’ chances are slim to none, but there is a lot that can be taken away by how the Celtics play this series, win or lose.
Cover Photo via USA Today