Year in and year out, the NBA playoffs provide us plenty of twists, turns and the highly unexpected on the road to the Finals. While this year’s edition has had a few of those moments along the way, in the end the expected is what has played out in both sides of the bracket with the top two seeds meeting in each conference final for the right to play for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Few know this hallowed ground quite like LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ superstar who is remarkably making his seventh straight trip to the Eastern Conference Finals and is dead-set on defending his NBA title next month. He’s played near flawlessly so far in the postseason in back-to-back sweeps of Indiana and Toronto and will be hoping that the upcoming series will go just as smoothly as the past two have while also providing a bit of a test for the rest of the team as they gear up to face a likely rubber match with Golden State.
Looking to put a stop to James’ dominance over the Eastern Conference will be the rather upstart Boston Celtics and their electric guard Isaiah Thomas. Things haven’t quite gone as quick nor as smooth as head coach Brad Stevens would have liked the past few weeks but, in the end, the top seed is where they expected to be with a chance to dispatch their budding foes from the Midwest. While the Celtics may lack the star power of their opponent, this is a deep team that can throw plenty of different looks at you on both ends of the court and make things interesting from start to finish.
All of that will come together over the course of the next few weeks as each side battles it out for the conference crown. The two teams have combined for an interesting back-and-forth during the regular season but things should get ratcheted up even more given the stakes in this series. It doesn’t get much better than this in terms of a series featuring numerous superstars and it won’t be long before we can finally say with certainty who the best team in the East really is.
No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers (51-31) vs. No. 1 Boston Celtics (53-29)
Game 1 - Wednesday, May 17, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 2 - Friday, May 19, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 3 - Sunday, May 21, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 4 - Tuesday, May 23, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 5 (if necessary) - Thursday, May 25, time TBD (TNT)
Game 6 (if necessary) - Saturday, May 27, time TBD (TNT)
Game 7 (if necessary) - Monday, May 29, time TBD (TNT)
Note: Games 1, 2, 5, 7 will be played at TD Garden in Boston, while Games 3, 4, 6 will take place at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
Keys for Cleveland
One of the bigger developments in the Celtics’ playoff run has been the move to smaller lineups on the floor more consistently, which poses a unique challenge on the other end of the court for their opponents. That will put some pressure on Cleveland head coach Tyrone Lue to make the necessary moves to combat that during the game, whether it means rotating Kevin Love or even LeBron James down to the center spot if necessary. The Cavaliers figure to have a massive rebounding advantage in this series overall but they can’t lose that edge even if downshifting a bit to combat Boston’s moves.
Similarly, the team has to be aware of where Isaiah Thomas is at all times and create enough pressure to where he’s dishing instead of driving. Kyrie Irving is plenty capable of matching Thomas on the offensive end but both he and second unit guard Deron Williams will need to step up their game defensively to help out on the prodigious scorer. Finally, the long layoffs haven’t really hampered the hot shooting the team has had so far in the postseason so maintaining that kind of momentum — especially behind the arc — for this round should pay off quite a bit when it’s time for the Finals to roll around.
Keys for Boston
In Cleveland’s surprising late-season slide to the No. 2 seed, many pointed out the team’s defensive lapses as one reason to be at least a little worried when the playoffs rolled around. Those fears have proven unfounded so far in the Cavs’ 8-0 roll to the conference finals but will be put to the test thanks to the scoring prowess of Isaiah Thomas. The lightning-quick guard can put up shots in a hurry and set off scoring runs by himself time-after-time during a game. He averaged nearly 30 point per game against Cleveland in the regular season and will need similar heroic efforts each night if the Celtics harbor any hope of a shot when the fourth quarter rolls around.
The flip side to that equation is on the defensive end, where head coach Brad Stevens will need to work overtime in trying to slow down the Cavs’ big three on offense. The biggest issue is obviously James, who may see Jae Crowder, Gerald Green, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart all spend some time guarding the perennial MVP candidate. Complicating matters is his supporting cast has been stellar in catch-and-shoot situations from all over the floor. So while the offense may flow through James, he is far from the only one that Boston has to worry about over the course of this series defensively.
When the playoffs began, one could look at the overall body of work Boston and Cleveland sported and how well each was playing entering the postseason, and think they could combine for a pretty fun back-and-forth series down the road. Nearly a month later however, that notion has seemingly been turned on its head, with one side flipping the switch to look like world-beaters and the other having to rally in key moments after a slow start.
The Celtics still have enough to make this a compelling matchup but they’ll need to be at the top of their game each night in order for that to play out. Isaiah Thomas must be scoring at will, Al Horford needs to continue to play as stellar as he has been and the rest of the supporting cast will have to take the next step against the conference heavyweight.
It’s possible Boston does just that at times but it’s still hard to see the Celtics overcoming every wave that Cleveland can throw at you over the course of seven games. They still have the best all-around player in the game in LeBron James and his will to win is nearly unmatched. The Cavaliers may have struggled down the stretch earlier this year but they’ve been peaking in the postseason and the only team left that can stop them likely will be seen in the NBA Finals and not the Eastern Conference prelude.
Prediction: Cavaliers in five
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)