Typically when the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in a conference meet in said conference’s finals, we are pumped because it means a close, hard-fought series with the Finals on the line. Not this time. Boston may be the No. 1 seed, but from oddsmakers in Vegas through talk show hosts anywhere outside New England, most people give the Celtics about as much chance as Marie-Antoinette vs. the guillotine. Here are the three things to watch, and it paints a roadmap for Boston if they are to have a chance this series.
1. How do the Celtics slow LeBron James? LeBron has been the playoffs MVP so far, the best player on any team, and he has lifted the Cavaliers up with him. Through eight games (sweeps in the first two rounds), LeBron is averaging 34.4 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists per game. Those aren’t volume numbers, he’s been incredibly efficient shooting 57 overall from the field and 46.8 percent from three. He has been a force of nature running the pick-and-roll, neither the Pacers nor Raptors had any answer for dealing with him in that two-man game. If you don’t think he can do that to the Celtics, remember he averaged more than 29 points a game in the four meetings in the regular season and had a triple-double (28 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists) in the one game Boston won.
The Celtics have needed LeBron to be this good because Kyrie Irving has yet to get on track this postseason. It just hasn’t mattered. Yet.
Brad Stevens will scheme, and expect a lot of Jae Crowder to start on LeBron, with Marcus Smart likely getting a chance. If he gets desperate, maybe Stevens tries the athletic Gerald Green. The problem is Cleveland will decide who they want to guard LeBron and have that man’s mark come out and set the pick for LeBron. Think back to the Finals last year: Cleveland wanted Stephen Curry on LeBron, so Curry’s man always set the pick, no matter who it was, to force the switch. If the Cavaliers want to target Isaiah Thomas or anyone else, they will just force a two-man game and try to get the switch.
Boston provides a counter problem on the other end — Isaiah Thomas tore up the Cavaliers this season averaging 29.5 points per game in reg season against them. How Cleveland chooses to defend him and how many bodies they throw at him and dare others to beat them (Washington’s plan in the last round) remains to be seen. What we do know is Cleveland is back to playing good defense, and they are much better at it than the Wizards.
2. Which teams defends the three-point line better? Through the playoffs, the Boston Celtics have taken 456 total threes — 42.1 percent of their shot attempts come from three (only Houston had a higher percentage). Cleveland is right on their heels — 40.8 percent of their shot attempts have come from three. The Cavs have shot 43.4 percent from beyond the arc, the Celtics 37.3 percent.
The three is key to both team’s attacks. Whichever team can do a better job chasing their opponent off the arc, and contesting the shots they do take from deep, will have a huge advantage.
Boston’s opponents have shot just 31 percent from three through two rounds, although to be fair they played the shooting-challenged Bulls in the first round so it skews the numbers. It’s also going to be a different thing to do it against a Cavaliers team that has Channing Frye, who is shooting 55 percent from three in the playoffs, Kyle Korver (48 percent), LeBron (47 percent) and J.R. Smith (44 percent). What’s more, the Cavaliers have targeted the corner three heavily in the postseason and as a team are shooting 54 percent from there. LeBron has 16 assists to corner threes through eight games.
3. Boston has to be strong on the glass to have any chance in this series. Rebounding has been the Achilles heel of the Celtics all season long, and that has continued through the playoffs — they have won the rebounding battle once in 13 postseason games. The Celtics have grabbed 45.7 percent of total available rebounds these playoffs, the lowest percentage of any team in the postseason.
It may slow their transition game some, but the Celtics must gang rebound and make it a priority. Thompson, in particular, is active on the offensive glass and will be a real problem for Boston, who wants to play small but if they do too much Thompson could challenge Moses Malone’s record of 27 offensive rebounds in a series (1983 NBA Finals vs. the Lakers). It may be heresy to quote Pat Riley to Boston, but his mantra “rebounds=rings” applies to them.
Prediction: Cavaliers in Five. I know that saying it ends in five means Cleveland wins twice in Boston, but honestly, I think four games is more likely than six. I’ll give Boston one of the first two. But the fact is that while Boston is a good team they have flaws that the Cavaliers will exploit and, to be honest, Cleveland is just the better team.
The good news for the Celtics is they have the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft. GM Danny Ainge has to watch this series and ask himself, “Are we one player away if I trade this pick for an established star? Or are we better off drafting a potential star and trying to peak three years from now when LeBron is fading?”