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.