BOSTON (AP) — The jerseys and venues will be the same, but so much has changed since the last time Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics met in the Eastern Conference finals.
Kyrie Irving was dealt to Boston in a blockbuster offseason deal for Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder. But following a roster upheaval in February, the Cavs were left with only five players from last year’s team that rolled past the Celtics 4-1 to earn a place in the NBA Finals.
Irving will watch this year’s rematch from the sideline after a pair of knee surgeries late in the regular season denied him an opportunity to play this postseason. It was the capstone of an injury-plagued year in Boston that also saw the seasons of Gordon Hayward and rookie Daniel Theis truncated.
The one constant has been Cleveland’s LeBron James, who at age 33 has again found another gear in the playoffs despite the different pieces surrounding him. His 34.3 scoring average in these playoffs is his highest since the 2009 postseason.
James can become the sixth player in league history to play in at least eight consecutive NBA Finals. The five others who have done so all played with the Celtics, led by Hall of Famer Bill Russell’s run of 10 straight appearances.
James hasn’t yet had a chance to reflect on his own run but says he isn’t taking anything for granted at this point in his career.
“You dream about being able to play in big games in the NBA and even when I got to the NBA that was one of my only goals to be as great as I can be, to play in big games in the NBA and be remembered and I think I’ve done that in my career,” he said. “Just trying to add onto it while I can.”
The series starts Sunday in Boston. This is the eighth playoff matchup between the teams overall, with the Celtics leading 4-3.
The Celtics are seeking their first trip to the NBA Finals since 2010, when they got past James and the Cavs in the East semifinals.
Since Irving’s injury, Celtics coach Brad Stevens has relied heavily on veteran Al Horford and a youthful corps that includes 24-year-olds Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, 21-year-old Jaylen Brown and 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum.
Horford is averaging career playoff-high 17 points per game, while carrying the leadership torch.
Rozier has flourished in a starting role since Irving was sidelined in mid-March. It’s carried over into the postseason where he is averaging 18.2 points per game. And Tatum is coming of a series against Philadelphia that saw him average 23.6 points per game – the second-highest by a Celtics rookie in franchise history.
“I feel like we more together (than last year),” Rozier said. “Obviously guys been going down all year and it’s like you never know who’s going to down. But we found a way, we pulled together.”
As for Rozier’s prediction for the series?
“Stay tuned,” he said.
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower