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ECF Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers Vs. Boston Celtics

Ken Blaze - USA TODAY Sports

Can Boston dethrone the King?

After a hard fought battle in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, it’s the Boston Celtics who will have a shot at preventing the seventh finals appearance in a row for LeBron James. James and the Cleveland Cavaliers swept Boston in 2015’s first round, but the stakes are much higher this time and the Celtics have home court advantage. Let’s look at some of the keys to the series. 

Cleveland’s Keys to Winning the Series

Rebounding will be one of the biggest advantages for the Cavs in this series. They will obviously need to rely on James and Kyrie Irving to carry the scoring load, but crashing the glass on their misses is just as important. Cleveland went 3-1 against Boston in the regular season, out-rebounding the Celtics 180-153 in those games. 

If the Cavs can crash the glass at a high rate, they can force Boston out of their successful small-ball lineups. Among Boston’s five most often used lineups this postseason, three have positive net ratings, all of which feature only one big man (either Al Horford or Kelly Olynyk). It’s the same strategy Cleveland used in last year’s NBA Finals - the Cavs out-rebounded Golden State in three of their four wins. If they can force the Celtics to play traditional two-big lineups and dictate the pace, it’ll be extremely tough for Boston to match up down low. 

Cleveland’s X-Factor: Kevin Love

Love was injured in Cleveland’s only loss to Boston in the regular season and absolutely dominated in the other three games, averaging 23.6 points and 13 rebounds. Love should excel in this matchup because the Celtics biggest hole is at the power forward position. Brad Stevens has settled on starting Amir Johnson to begin games, but the 12-year veteran is only averaging 11 minutes per game this postseason. 

If a smaller defender is put on Love, expect him to take advantage of his post game. He’s only averaging 3.0 post-up possessions per game during the playoffs and is shooting 50% on those plays. Expect those numbers to rise if he has a mismatch he can exploit. He should be extra motivated as well - it’s the first time he’ll face Olynyk in the playoffs since accusing him of intentionally injuring his shoulder in 2015.

Boston’s Keys to Winning the Series

Winning the bench battle is the best path to victory for the Celtics. It’s what ultimately got them past the Wizards in the semifinals - Boston had 48 bench points compared to only 5 for Washington in Game 7. The Celtics may be outmatched when comparing starting lineups with the Cavs, but Danny Ainge has done a great job building a deep bench that can compete with the best of the best.

Boston’s reserves will be important on both ends of the floor, especially at the guard position. Young, energetic players like Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier will have the task of containing savvy veterans like Deron Williams and Kyle Korver. As for the rest of the bench, expect Jaylen Brown and Gerald Green to play big roles as small-ball wings hoping to use length and athleticism to slow down Cleveland’s offense. 

Boston’s X-Factor: Avery Bradley

Bradley was arguably the biggest difference in the semifinals for the Celtics. He exploded offensively for 29 points in Game 5 and 27 in Game 6, emerging as a clear second scoring option after Isaiah Thomas. His ability to shoot both off the catch and off the dribble has been on display over the last week. He’s also incredibly difficult to deal with when leaking out early in transition due to his speed. Most of all, he comes up big in the clutch. Cleveland became familiar with this during a regular season game last season.  

Bradley will also be incredibly important on the defensive end. He’s widely considered one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, something both James and Irving have spoken to the media about in the past. He’ll likely be tasked with guarding Irving given the way Stevens has hidden Thomas on defense so far in the playoffs. On March 1, it was Bradley’s defense on Irving that helped seal a Celtics victory. He’ll have to continue this level of intensity to give Boston a shot at advancing to the NBA Finals. 

Projected Outcome: Cavaliers in Six

This series will not be a cakewalk for Cleveland. Boston’s defensive intensity is at a level the Cavs have yet to see in this year’s playoff run, and home court advantage should help the Celtics avoid a sweep. 

Unfortunately, LeBron James plays for the other team. James has a long history of beating Boston no matter what he’s up against. We shouldn’t expect anything less this time around. 

Edited by Joe Sparacio, Emily Greitzer.

What was the last Eastern Conference team to make the finals without LeBron James?
Created 5/16/17
  1. Miami Heat
  2. Boston Celtics
  3. Orlando Magic
  4. Detroit Pistons

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