By Rahul Lal
It’s finally time for the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. After an incredible back-and-forth series between the Washington Wizards and the Boston Celtics, the DC curse holds, and Beantown can celebrate… for now. While Boston has many reasons to be excited, it faces an even more difficult task starting Wednesday: beating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
James has taken his teams to the NBA Finals, representing the East, in each of the last six seasons and has a chance to make it seven. The scary part? Cleveland coasted through the Pacers and Raptors series in only eight games, last playing nine days ago. The even scarier part? LeBron is potentially playing his greatest postseason ever, averaging 34.4 points, nine rebounds and over seven assists per game. He’s been a menace on defense too, putting up nearly two blocks and two steals each game.
What’s made The King different this season are his shooting lines: 55.7 percent from the field and a ridiculous 46.8 percent from three on six attempts per game. The Celtics lack the physical, defensive presence to shut him down, or even slow him down. The Raptors’ P.J. Tucker tried for 15 or 20 minutes at a time in their second-round series, and it led to some of LeBron’s most memorable playoff performances we’ve seen in a long time.
Boston will rotate among perimeter defenders like the lesser-but-similar defender Jae Crowder, a significantly smaller Avery Bradley and rookie Jaylen Brown. All three are great defenders but just won’t present that much of a challenge. Aside from number 23, last year’s Finals’ hero, Kyrie Irving, has been waiting to erupt, averaging nearly 24 points per game — albeit with some dismal shooting performances. Third fiddle, Kevin Love, has been a bit quiet this postseason but hasn’t been asked to do much given the nature of Cleveland’s two sweeps.
Speaking of Kevin Love, let’s give Kelly Olynyk — who infamously dislocated Love’s shoulder during the 2015 NBA playoffs — a round of applause for his game-seven performance. A role player much of the playoffs, he looked like the second coming of Larry Bird Monday night. The Celtics’ entire team is driven by the lionhearted Isaiah Thomas. Thomas is battling the tragic and unexpected death of his sister in a car crash just before the playoffs. Since then, Thomas has seemed to use the court as his sanctuary, putting on some of the more inspired and passionate performances we’ve seen in the this year’s playoffs.
Thomas, who at a generous 5’9″ is about as tall as your average popcorn vendor, was the final pick in the very same draft that saw Cleveland select Irving first overall, and there’s plenty to love about his ongoing underdog story. This postseason, the mighty point guard has put up over 25 points and six assists per game, including a 53-point Game-2 performance against the Wizards and some insane fourth-quarter numbers. However, his height can make him a liability on defense, one that the Celtics generally try to hide. Forcing him to defend the ball against inevitably taller, more physical players can tire him out and slow his production on offense.
The key for Boston won’t be Thomas, though. The Celtics signed Al Horford this past summer to a mammoth contract, and he needs to come up big in this series. His versatility on offense opens up the floor for the rest of the team. The Celtics have enjoyed his increased production this postseason; his points, rebounds, assists and steals are all up from the regular season. In fact, his 5.8 assists per game in these playoffs rank him in the top 10 among players in the East, one of only two non-point guards on the list. (LeBron is the other.) He’s also hitting nearly two three-pointers per game. The Celtics will need to see more consistency from Horford on the boards, as he averages over two rebounds more per game in postseason wins than in losses.
Avery Bradley has been something of a revelation this postseason and may be playing himself into a massive payday this summer. In their first-round series against the Chicago Bulls, Bradley scored 24 and 23 points in Games 5 and 6 respectively; in the second-round series against the Wizards, he put up 29 and 27 points in Games 5 and 6 respectively. Continuing his much-improved offense, to complement his already great defense, would also take some pressure off of Thomas as the primary scorer.
Marcus Smart is one of the biggest enigmas on the court, but he can, at the very least, play tough perimeter defense and possibly limit Cleveland’s backcourt. Young Jaylen Brown, a future star, has shown flashes of his potential dominance and lots of offensive and defensive versatility. While he’s been wildly impressive in the playoffs, lining up against Cleveland’s vets will be a tough challenge.
On the whole, the Cavaliers are still the defending champs and have had plenty of time to sit back, get healthy and prepare for a seven-game series. (Though it probably won’t come to that.) Boston, on the other hand, will start to feel some fatigue going into an unforgiving matchup after a rough seven-game series with the Wizards. Cleveland has sneaky depth in experienced players such as Channing Frye, Kyle Korver, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Deron Williams, Iman Shumpert and Richard Jefferson, who have all played on big stages. Cleveland will look to take advantage of Boston, despite not having home-court advantage. While both teams are great, the gritty Celtics face an uphill battle to knock off these Cavaliers who are ready to advance.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 5.
Rahul Lal is an LA native stuck in a lifelong, love-hate relationship with the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.