For the first time since 2012, the Boston Celtics are in the Eastern Conference Finals. Back then they lost to LeBron James and the Miami Heat, marking the end of an era for that Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett/Ray Allen Celtics team. Now it’s LeBron in the way again, this time with Cleveland. The Cavs are Sports Interaction series favorites to reach another NBA Finals.
Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics, Game 1
Now we find out if the Cavaliers will pay for essentially gifting the top seed in the Eastern Conference to Boston. Cleveland was in control of that spot but lost its final four games of the regular season and didn’t bother playing LeBron or Kyrie Irving in the final two. Thus Cleveland finished two games behind Boston; the Cavs would have held the tiebreaker. James-led teams have won the Eastern Conference six years in a row and not always with the top seed. The Cavs thought it was more important to get their stars rest.
Speaking of rest, the Cavs will have had plenty of that as they have played just eight games in a little over a month. They finished off a sweep of Indiana on April 23 and then did the same to Toronto on May 7. So the Cavs are likely as healthy as they’ve been all year, but there’s a point where there can be too much time off. The nine days off between finishing the Raptors and facing Boston in Game 1 is the longest playoff gap James has endured in Cleveland.
James is 32 and with plenty of tread in the tires considering he arrived in the NBA straight from high school and has played postseason basketball just about every season since. With 49,996 minutes played in the regular season and playoffs in his career, LeBron is on the verge of becoming the 18th player in NBA history to reach 50,000 career minutes. He will be the youngest player to do so.
Yet LeBron might be at a level not seen previously from him. James is averaging 34.4 points on 55.7 per cent shooting in this postseason as well as 9.0 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 2.1 steals. The Celtics simply have no one to match up with him, but then few teams do. The Cavs have won 11 straight playoff games dating to last year’s comeback from down 3-1 in the NBA Finals to Golden State.
James is getting plenty of help from Irving, who is averaging 23.8 points and 5.8 assists per game. Kevin Love has been relatively quiet thus far, but also hasn’t been needed much. While the Celtics were much deeper than the Wizards in the last round, that won’t be the case here. Cleveland has nine guys averaging at least 14 minutes per game in the playoffs.
This will mark the sixth time LeBron has faced the Celtics in a postseason series. He’s 3-2, having lost in 2008 and 2010 and won in 2011, 2012 and 2015. The Cavs are +275 second-favourites to repeat as NBA champions.
I believe we are witnessing the start of what will be the East’s best rivalry over the next three years or so between the Celtics and Cavaliers. I say this because the Cavs are going to be great as long as James is still going strong, and he probably has three great seasons left. Boston is definitely on the rise. Not only did the Celtics finish with the East’s best record, but they also have the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick in this and next year’s draft (2017 draft lottery was Tuesday night and Boston had best chance to win it). So the C’s are only going to get better through those young players or by trading the picks for established stars like Chicago’s Jimmy Butler or Indiana’s Paul George.
The Celtics finished off visiting Washington 115-105 in Game 7 of the conference semifinals on Monday night; the home team won all 11 meetings between those two teams dating to the regular season. Isaiah Thomas scored 29 points and had 12 assists, and Canadian Kelly Olynyk scored a career-playoff high 26 points Monday.
So where do the Celtics have an edge here? I’m not sure I see one. As spectacular as Thomas was this season in finishing third in the league in scoring (28.9 ppg), Irving is every bit the offensive player he is. That said, Irving isn’t a good defender at all (Thomas isn’t much better) and the Cavs as a whole struggle at times to defend. So expect a high-scoring series. In the playoffs, the two teams have combined to average nearly 230 points per 100 possessions.
Boston won just one of four regular-season meetings with Cleveland. The Cavs took the most recent one 114-91 in Boston on April 5 – at that point it looked as if the Cavaliers had the East’s top seed in the bag. Thomas averaged 29.5 points and 6.5 assists in the four. James averaged 29.3 points, 9.8 assists and 9.5 rebounds vs. Boston. Irving put up 25.5 points per game and Love 23.7 points and 13.0 rebounds.
The Celtics are +1800 to win the NBA title.
Cavaliers vs. Celtics Predictions
For Boston to have any shot to win this series, it must take Game 1. If the rusty Cavs can steal home-court advantage right off the bat, that’s going to be very deflating for the Celtics. Cleveland is vastly better than Chicago, which took Boston to six games, and Washington, which extended the C’s to seven. The Celtics struggle to rebound, and the Cavs should dominate there with James, Love and Tristan Thompson crashing the boards.
Cleveland in six games (that exact series result is +251) to set up another showdown in the NBA Finals with the Warriors.