It was nearly a month ago that NBA fans were predicting a Toronto Raptors vs. Philadelphia 76ers Eastern Conference finals. The Raptors were supposed to be a legit No. 1 seed and put their postseason struggles behind them. The 76ers were coming in hot with the longest winning streak in franchise history.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were too inconsistent and struggling defensively. The Boston Celtics were too banged up. There was not much of a chance either of these teams were getting past the first round.
Well, here we are. The Cavaliers and Celtics will be facing each other in the Eastern Conference finals for a second straight season, defying all odds and proving that the regular season is meaningless when talking about the playoffs. LeBron James has continued his postseason dominance, and Brad Stevens is making his case as the NBA’s top coach.
Here is a look at both teams as they prepare to face off for a shot at the NBA Finals.
The Cavs have had a very interesting postseason to say the least. After surviving a series against the Indiana Pacers that went to Game 7, they swept the No. 1 seed Toronto Raptors.
What changed for the Cavs? LeBron James got some help. In the Indiana series, James averaged 34.4 points per game with the second highest average being 11.4. In the Toronto series, James averaged 34, but Kevin Love averaged 20.5, and Kyle Korver, JR Smith and Jeff Green each averaged over 12.
Indiana was a tougher matchup defensively for the Cavs. They held the Cavs to 94.9 points per game on 43.4 percent shooting. They were much more physical than Toronto, and Lance Stephenson was doing everything he could to get in the Cavs’ heads. In the end, James proved why he is the league’s best player, and a nice boost from Tristan Thompson and George Hill in Game 7 helped push the Cavs to the semifinals.
Toronto was no match for Cleveland. For the third straight season, the Cavs eliminated the Raptors’ in the playoffs. The Cavs swept the Raptors and averaged 14.1 more points per game than them in the process.
Overall, Cleveland is averaging 103.5 points per game and allowing 102. The offense is not quite where it was at in the regular season, but the defense has really improved. The Cavs held Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to just 34.6 points per game combined.
Most importantly, LeBron James is dominating the postseason once again. Overall, James is averaging 34.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, nine assists, 1.5 steals and a block per game. He is shooting 55.3 percent from the field and nailed two buzzer beaters in the Toronto series.
The matchup against Toronto really helped the Cavs come together as a team and figure things out. However, despite missing Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, beating the Celtics will be no easy task.
The Celtics were doomed from the start of the season when Hayward went down with an injury in the season opener against the Cavs. Their chances of postseason success were shattered when Irving went down with an injury in early April.
At least, that was what was supposed to happen. Players like Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum have really stepped up for the team in the absence of their stars.
Like the Cavs, the Celtics struggled in their first-round matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo and company took the No. 2 seed in the East to seven games. Home-court advantage proved to be a key factor as the home team won each game in the series.
Boston advanced to face the 76ers, who were hot coming in, but still inexperienced. To the surprise of many, Boston beat Philly in five games. The biggest key for Boston was shutting down rookie sensation Ben Simmons. Simmons was held to just 14.4 points per game and turned the ball over 24 times, which was by far more than anyone else in the series.
Tatum, who has also made noise as a rookie, led Boston in scoring in the series with 23.6 points per game on 52.6 percent shooting. Rozier contributed 19 points and 7.2 rebounds. Jaylen Brown added 15.3 points and five rebounds, and Boston’s lone All-Star, Al Horford, contributed 15.4 points and 8.6 rebounds in the series.
Overall, the Celtics are averaging 104.1 points per game on 44.6 percent shooting and allowing 102.5. They will be making their second straight trip to the Eastern Conference finals. A starting lineup that features Tatum, Brown, Horford, Rozier and Aron Baynes will not scare too many people.
However, you have to look at who is leading this team. The only explanation for how Boston has made it this far is Brad Stevens. Stevens has been making his case not just for Coach of the Year, but also for why he may be the NBA’s best coach. Not many coaches could get this far without their two best players.
This will be the third time in the last four years that the Cavaliers and Celtics have met in the playoffs. It is a matchup most predicted at the start of the regular season, but not at the start of the postseason given the circumstances of both teams.
Really, there is not much that separates these teams statistically. Boston averages 3.9 more rebounds per game, 0.6 more points, 1.5 more assists, 0.3 more steals, 0.9 more blocks and 0.9 percent more shooting from three. The Cavs shoot 2.1 percent higher from the field, turn the ball over 0.2 times less, force 0.2 more turnovers and allow 0.5 points per game less.
The Cavs have more star power, although Kevin Love has struggled overall this postseason. He is averaging just 14.7 points per game on 39.4 percent shooting, but is still contributing 10.1 rebounds and shooting 38.5 percent from three.
However, the Celtics appear to be more balanced. Boston has six players averaging at least 10 points per game this postseason compared to just four on Cleveland. None of those six players on the Celtics really struggled offensively in the first round like the players on the Cavs. However, Indiana played much tougher defense than Milwaukee at the same time.
This matchup is closer than people might think. Ultimately, it is going to depend on which version of the Cavs shows up this series.
Cleveland will be the toughest defense Boston has faced this postseason, while Boston will be in the middle of the pack for Cleveland. Boston was able to fluster a young player like Ben Simmons in the semifinals, but it is going to be tougher to do that against a veteran team like the Cavs.
Boston has home-court advantage for this series, but there is a three-day break between Game 2 and 3. An older team like Cleveland could really benefit from this break. If Cleveland can take one game in Boston, they can return to Cleveland fully charged and potentially jump ahead 3-1 when returning to Boston for Game 5.
Prediction: Cleveland in six
Featured image by Michael Dwyer/AP
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