Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers preview: Three things to watch

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Before the season tipped off, this is the Eastern Conference Finals we expected. However, the path to get here was nothing like we envisioned. Gordon Hayward out. Kyrie Irving out. Cleveland radically shaking up its roster at the trade deadline.

Yet in the end, here we are — a repeat of last year’s conference finals that the Cavaliers won. They are the favorites again, but this series is not going to be a sweep like the round before, the Celtics are disciplined and playing at a higher level than anyone the Cavs have seen this postseason. Boston has a shot to win this.

Here are three things to watch in this series.

1) Can the Celtics wear down LeBron James with multiple fresh defenders? The question isn’t “who is guarding LeBron?” but rather “how many guys will be guarding LeBron?” The Celtics have a wealth of defenders who will get their turn on The King: Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum (in very limited stints), Semi Ojeleye (off the bench), heck I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brad Stevens ask Dave Cowens if he can still give them 10 good minutes. The idea is to keep fresh bodies on LeBron and hope that he wears down just a little having to work harder to get his shots.

The bigger question is how will the Celtics choose to defend LeBron? In the last two series, Boston was willing to largely single cover the opposing team’s star and let him rack up points — Giannis Antetokounmpo then Joel Embiid — but then stay home on the shooters and the rest of the players. It’s a good plan, one the Raptors tried to employ last round — rookie OG Anunoby did a respectable job on LeBron (as much as can be expected) but the Raptors did not silence Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, or J.R. Smith. If Boston goes with this system they will face a serious challenge because LeBron is both a high IQ player and a gifted passer. However, Boston is a far more disciplined defense that is far more switchable, has far more mobile big men, and doesn’t make the mistakes that Toronto (and before them Indiana did). Boston is going to follow the standard book to a degree and try to turn LeBron into a jumpshooter. LeBron is going to have to carry an even bigger load this series. He’s also fully capable of that.

2) Will a season of bad defensive habits from the Cavaliers catch up with them? No need to rehash how the Celtics were 29th in the NBA in defense during the regular season, but if you think they have been much better in the playoffs, think again: Cleveland allowed 109.5 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, it has been 108.4 per 100 in the playoffs (10th out of the 16 teams). Cleveland’s defensive effort has been better, as it will be in this series, but their communication and recognition have not been sharp.

That’s something Boston can exploit because this is not a team where the defense can just target one guy (Victor Oladipo) or even two (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan). The Celtics get their buckets out of their system and trust all five guys on the floor to make the right pass, the right cut, and when the time comes take the shot.

Boston makes a defense work for the entire 24 seconds, Cleveland has not been good at second and third defensive efforts. Cavaliers’ defenders can get twisted around on pick-and-rolls, and particularly dribble handoffs (which the Celtics run a lot of). All of which is to say Boston is going to rack up points in this series. The challenge will be getting stops against that Cavalier offense on the other end.

3) How will Cleveland primarily defend Al Horford, with Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson? The answer to this question is less about Horford and more about Tyronn Lue’s philosophy for the series, is he thinking offensively or defensively? We’ll find out quickly with how he chooses to start the game against Boston. In the previous series against Toronto, Kevin Love started at the five and it was a huge advantage for Cleveland on offense because it pulled Jonas Valanciunas away from the basket and forced him to defend in space, something he struggled with (and JV couldn’t make Love pay on defense). However, in the first round against the Pacers, Thompson and his defensive presence in the paint — and on the offensive glass — proved to be important for Cleveland.

Boston brings Horford to the table — he is comfortable protecting the rim and playing inside, plus he can step out and defend on the perimeter. Love and Korver’s corner action is not going to flummox Horford like it did JV and the Raptors, he will sniff it out and make plays.

On the other end, something to watch: Boston may try to run a lot of pick-and-rolls with Horford setting the screen for LeBron’s man (or, if LeBron is on Jaylen Brown as he was often during the season, Brown sets the screen) just to force LeBron to switch and be active on defense. Yes that means pulling Cleveland’s best defender into the play, but it also makes LeBron work on defense, where mostly the Cavs try to hide him and let him rest until key moments of the game. This is part of the “wear him ou”t strategy from above.

Clippers reportedly add Tyronn Lue to coaching staff

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Tyronn Lue will be coaching in Los Angeles this upcoming season, but it won’t be for the Lakers.

News broke on Tuesday that Lue had accepted a job on Doc Rivers’ staff with the Los Angeles Clippers. Lue is yet another big-name addition to a squad that already added players Kawhi Leonard and Paul George this offseason.

Lue was a championship-winning coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, and he has an innate understanding about how to deal with star players in the NBA.

Via Twitter:

It’s also important to understand what kind of culture Rivers, Steve Ballmer, and the rest of the Clippers front office is trying to build in Los Angeles. In addition to their proposed new stadium in Inglewood, the Clippers are trying to take over L.A. one big-name at a time. That includes everyone from players to coaches, even ones who won championships as the head honcho.

There’s no doubt that Los Angeles is striving for the Finals this season, and adding a guy like Lue to the bench is yet another reiteration of that fact.

Rumor: Stephen A. Smith is coming to ESPN’s NBA broadcasts

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National NBA broadcasts are about to get a little bit different this upcoming season.

We already got word that Michelle Beadle would not be on NBA Countdown on ESPN for the 2019-20 NBA calendar year. In her place will be Rachel Nichols, a favorite of most thanks to her work on The Jump, and Maria Taylor. And apparently ESPN’s studio show is about to get an analyst boost as well.

According to the big lead, Stephen A. Smith will be added to the analyst panel for ESPN studio show, likely on Wednesday nights. The bombastic First Take host will give his NBA takes either to the delight or dismay of fans nationwide.

Via The Big Lead:

Stephen A. Smith is in ESPN’s plans for NBA studio coverage this upcoming season, The Big Lead has learned from multiple people with knowledge of the situation. An ESPN spokesperson declined to comment on the news.

Our sources indicate that Wednesday night is the most likely time for him to be involved, but cautioned that plans are not yet set in stone.

People lost their collective minds on Twitter this summer when it was announced that ESPN had given another huge contract to Stephen A. to continue to do… whatever Stephen A. does. Namely, yell and act incredulous in a way so insincere it’s hard to believe anyone is entertained by it, much less could take it at face value.

No doubt Smith will fill the role, aesthetically, that Charles Barkley does for TNT. He’ll talk in big, wild soundbites that get Twitter all riled up, thereby allowing some VP at the network to pitch his superiors about “leverage” and “engagement” from Smith’s appearances.

Good luck to everyone watching the NBA on national TV this year. Maybe locate where the mute button is on your remote now so you know where it is come autumn.

Gordon Hayward says he’s feeling confident in his ankle for next season

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Gordon Hayward still wasn’t particularly good last season. He never really looked all that comfortable playing with the Boston Celtics, and Brad Stevens’ insistence on playing him led to some reported rifts in the Boston locker room.

But Hayward is expected to come back at full strength this year, and it could be just in time for him to shine in light of Kyrie Irving‘s departure to the Brooklyn Nets.

His severely dislocated left ankle is now long behind him, and it appears that Hayward has been putting in the work necessary this summer. Speaking to Mass Live, Hayward said that he is starting to get more confident in his game.

Via Mass Live:

“Reps is what gives you confidence, so being able to do things over and over and over and not worry about how my ankle’s feeling, or having to be cautious with it, has been really good, especially for my confidence,” Hayward said. “I think last year was a lot of hoping and not really knowing what was going to happen just because I didn’t have the reps… going into a summer training as hard as I want to, it’s a lot better for my confidence this year and expectations-wise as well.”

A healthy Hayward would really change the dynamic of the Celtics in the Eastern Conference this year. Losing Irving is huge, but Boston is going to have a real depth of talent on its hands if it can add Hayward to other wing talent Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart.

It seems cliche to point out at this point, but people have slept on how good Hayward was on both sides of the ball during his time with the Utah Jazz. He’s a complete player at the small forward position when healthy, and bringing back his superstar firepower could ease the pain of losing Irving to Brooklyn.

Royce White questions why Lakers have Jared Dudley not ‘Melo; Dudley, others defend move

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There are a lot of people surprised that this deep into the summer, with NBA rosters largely filled out, Carmelo Anthony isn’t playing somewhere. Whether on Team USA or training with new teammates for an upcoming NBA season.

Among those confused, former NBA draft pick Royce White, who was outspoken on the issue — and called out both LeBron James and Jared Dudley — in speaking with Fanatics View.

Dudley responded to this, not directly to White but to a retweet of this rant, and did so in Dudley’s calm, rational way. His Tweet has since been taken down, but it said:

“This isn’t Melo vs myself, That man is a 1st ballot HOFer… We all want to see him back in the league… Royce seems uninformed when he speaks and this situation in calling my name out. This league is not about who’s better then who it’s what’s players make for the best Team.”

Kendrick Perkins and Jameer Nelson had Dudley’s back.

Dudley/Perkins/Nelson are spot on here. The reason Dudley is on an NBA roster and Anthony is not is all about willingness to fit in and play a role. Dudley knows exactly how to do that, accepting limited minutes off the bench, staying ready, and when he comes in playing hard, being a pest, and knocking down threes. Anthony is unquestionably still a better scorer, but he was unwilling to accept a role in both Oklahoma City and Houston (and his game now is that of a role player/sixth man). Anthony says that’s different now, but GMs are risk averse in most situations. Teams that might have interest in ‘Melo are concerned about the possible distraction and disruption, and they wonder if that risk is worth what Anthony brings to the court right now. It was the same with Team USA.

Some team should — and one likely eventually will — give Anthony another shot. He deserves it. However, teams thinking about a deep playoff run tend to like their chemistry and are wary of disruptions, so nothing has come out yet. Even if Royce White and a lot of other people think it should have.