CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (59-31)
at BOSTON CELTICS (61-34)
Tip-off: Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET
Line: Cleveland -4, Total: 219.5
Despite their No. 1 seeding, few believe the Celtics can take four games from Cleveland.
The Boston Celtics are riding high entering the Eastern Conference Finals, having slugged out a 115-105 victory over the Washington Wizards in Game 7 of their second-round series at home on Monday night (BOS -4.5). Some dared question whether the Celtics were the worst No. 1 seed in NBA history after they finished the regular season atop the East at 53-29, and they have at least cleared that low bar with series victories over the Chicago and Washington. Now, though, they face the real test: a conference finals showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers. A late-season swoon dropped the Cavs to the No. 2 seed in the East, but dominating sweeps over the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors further cemented them as heavy favorites to win the conference. For many, Boston’s real test in this series is whether they can win even one game—they’ll take their first shot at it in Game 1 on Wednesday night in the friendly confines of the TD Garden. Since 1996, road favorites of 3.5 to 9.5 points that are outscoring their opponents by at least 3 PPG on the season (CLE) are 146-82 ATS after scoring 105 points or more in three straight games. Over the last five seasons, games involving a home team looking to revenge a blowout loss of 20 points or more—Boston lost 114-91 to Cleveland on April 5—are 80-41 Over against totals of 210 or more.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that SF LeBron James’ (34.4 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 7.1 APG, 2.1 SPG, 1.5 BPG; all player stats are for playoffs) performance in these playoffs has affected the way that at least a handful of other teams will approach their futures, including the Celtics. With James looking better than ever at the age of 32—and showing no signs of slowing down—he appears primed to continue to own the East for years to come. In his two Game 1s this postseason, he has averaged 33.5 PPG, 8.0 RPG and 8.5 APG. The fact that he (and the rest of the Cavs) enters this series well rested doesn’t bode well for Boston, as LeBron James doesn’t get rusty. PG Kyrie Irving (23.8 PPG, 5.8 APG, 1.5 SPG) taught us last year that, in addition to being supremely talented, he embraces the big moment in the playoffs. While no one can really guard LeBron, the Celtics have a couple excellent defenders that they hope will frustrate Irving; he may therefore be doing more passing than usual. When he’s hot, though, no one can stop him. PF Kevin Love (13.8 PPG, 9.1 RPG) has been mostly quiet these playoffs with low scoring totals, but his rebounding and three-point shooting (40.5%) show that he’s filling his role well. SG J.R. Smith (6.4 PPG) and C Tristan Thompson (7.8 PPG) join those three in the starting lineup, while PF Channing Frye (8.8 PPG, 55.2 3P%) and SG Kyle Korver (7.8 PPG, 48.5 3P%) spread the floor off the bench.
With James on the court, Celtics coaches are likely spending more time game planning for defense than for offense as Game 1 approaches. Rookie SF Jaylen Brown (3.3 PPG) has the best combination of size, strength, quickness and speed to keep up with him, even if he’s not Boston’s best defender from a technique perspective. PG Marcus Smart (8.0 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 4.6 APG, 1.5 SPG, 1.0 BPG) and SF Jae Crowder (13.2 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.2 SPG) will also likely spend time on him. Smart was brilliant for Boston on Monday on both ends of the court, and they’ll need the best version of him to compete with the Cavs. It would also be huge for the Celtics if Crowder could recover some of his accuracy from deep: He’s shooting 27.8% on threes in the postseason after shooting 39.8% in the regular season. Smart and SG Avery Bradley (15.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.5 SPG) will split time on Irving, with Bradley being possibly the best-equipped guy to guard him in the entire league. He also averaged 28 PPG in Games 5 and 6 against Washington, and he should be aggressive offensively against a defensively-challenged Cleveland backcourt. Obviously, though, PG Isaiah Thomas (25.4 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 6.5 APG) is the guy to watch. He was very up-and-down in terms of scoring against Washington, scoring as many as 53 points and as few as 13 in the series. He had 29 and 12 assists in a strong Game 7. C Al Horford (16.1 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 5.8 APG) has looked like an All-Star in these playoffs, and C Kelly Olynyk (9.7 PPG) looked like an MVP with 26 shocking points in Game 7 against Washington.