Six months later the Eastern Conference Finals are here and we have the matchup that most expected as the Boston Celtics take on the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s been a long, strange journey to get here. When these teams played on opening night, we had visions of them meeting in May with a shot at the NBA Finals on the line. But neither team looks a whole lot like the group that opened the 2017-18 NBA Season way back in mid-October. As Jeff Clark wrote: We’ve seen these teams play before, yet we’ve never seen this matchup.
The Celtics lost Gordon Hayward a scant five minutes into that opening night game. Watching Hayward get wheeled off was akin to getting a new video game system on Christmas morning, setting it up and having the power go out due to an unexpected blizzard. Not only was your shiny new object of affection taken away, but you knew you wouldn’t have it back for a while either.
When the Celtics ripped off 16 straight wins, it seemed almost silly that they could lose their best all-around player and still be this good. The kids’ development (Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and the oh-so precocious Jayson Tatum) was something we rallied around. That they were this good already? That’s icing on the cake.
And Boston still had Kyrie Irving, with his great play and mind-bendingly out-of-nowhere quotes off the court. He was a character, while showing his character on the court. Then, just as you had finally figured out that the way to win in Overwatch is to just keep firing, the power went out again. This time it was one of those surprising late-winter storms, the kind that pops up just as you think spring is finally here.
Yet, the Celtics have persevered. The kids came along quicker than anyone could have possibly expected. Al Horford has provided a steadying veteran presence. Aron Baynes is a key rotation piece, as much for his offense as his defense. Marcus Smart makes Marcus Smart plays. It’s taken all of it, but somehow Boston is right where we expected them to be in the preseason.
For the Cavs, it’s all about LeBron James and it’s also not, all at the same time. James remains basketball’s singular talent atop the pyramid of current great players. He doesn’t bring it for all 82 in the regular season, because he needs to have enough to chase 16 wins in the spring. When he’s on, there’s no stopping him and no stopping Cleveland.
James’ supporting cast? They’ve never felt more like that. There are no co-stars here. No Kyrie. No Dwyane Wade. No Chris Bosh. Kevin Love has never been that guy. This Cavs team is like Cast Away. We get the occasional appearance from some others, but one guy carries the whole thing. If it wasn’t the right guy, it all falls apart. James is, as he always has been, the right guy.
But 10 guys take the court at a time, and several others will feature off the bench. Let me be the last to compare this series to Avengers: Infinity War. The Celtics ragtag band of imperfect heroes was thrown together to take down LeBronos and a handful of helpers. Here’s how they match up in their quest.
Starting Point Guards
Terry Rozier vs George Hill
Rozier has been amazing throughout the playoffs for the Celtics. He’s averaged 18.2 points, while handing out team-high 5.8 assists and grabbing 5.5 rebounds per game. He’s also put together some solid defensive efforts, first against a traditional point guard in Eric Bledsoe, then while cross-matched with J.J. Redick.
Most remarkable in this run for Rozier? He’s only turning it over 1.3 times per contest, including several games with zero turnovers. Without Irving, the Celtics needed Rozier to step up and he’s more than delivered.
On the other side, George Hill is back to playing the role he excelled in with the Indiana Pacers. He largely plays off the ball, as James does most of the playmaking for this team. That allows Hill to spot up and to focus on defense. His size and ability to guard bigger players has been part of the Cavs defensive improvement in the postseason. Hill will start on Rozier, but he’ll guard Brown, Tatum and several others throughout the series.
One place where Boston can take advantage is by having Rozier push the ball, not only in transition, but off Cleveland makes as well. Hill isn’t a great defender on the move, so Boston could steal some offense by getting the ball up quickly. And with no real rim protectors to speak of, Rozier could get all the way to the bucket if he pushes pace.
On the other end, Rozier can’t lose track of Hill. He’s shot poorly from behind the arc so far in the playoffs, but he’s been hampered by a back injury and only recently has returned to form. On occasion in the Milwaukee and Philadelphia series, Rozier would get a little distracted off ball and Boston’s defense paid the price. He also likes to get into passing lanes, which can create steals and easy hoops for the Celtics. But when he misses, it creates open looks for the opponent. Don’t expect to see Rozier change his style, but against a Cleveland team that takes better care of the ball than Bucks or 76ers, this could come into play with open Cavs jumpers.
Advantage: Celtics. Hill still doesn’t look fully healthy, even he does look better than he did. The biggest difference is that Hill is perfectly fine at the point for Cleveland, while Rozier has been exceptional for Boston. This is a matchup the Celtics have to win to take out the Cavs.
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum vs Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith
Let’s start off with a quick health update on Brown: He says he’s feeling better than he has, and his performance in Game 5 vs Philadelphia seems to back up that assessment. He looked explosive, and most importantly, he wasn’t grimacing after plays like he was earlier in the series.
Assuming Brown is ready, he’ll continue to pair with Tatum to give Boston more than could have ever been reasonably expected from the 21 and 20 year olds. Brown has scored 16.9 points per game in the playoffs, while hitting over 41 percent from downtown. One spot to watch? Brown is hitting just 52 percent at the free throw line. The Celtics can’t afford to leave points off the board in this series. After showing great improvement at the charity stipe as the regular season went along, Brown has regressed in the postseason.
As for Tatum, there isn’t much left to say that hasn’t been said. He’s been terrific on both ends of the floor. Sure, he loses the ball too often when he goes to the hoop and sometimes he commits fouls he shouldn’t. Those probably aren’t getting corrected this year, as that’s more of a project for the summer. But he’s scoring a team-best 18.8 points per game and flat out carrying the Boston offense for stretches of playoff games. On the other end, he’s guarding 2-4 and using his length to contest shots and to make a mess of opponents’ passing lanes.
Korver and Smith are who they have been for over a decade: shooters who can destroy an opponent’s gameplan by killing them from behind the arc. The two are combining for 11.4 three-point attempts per game in the playoffs, while making five of them, which is good for 44 percent. Neither player really does much else, but when you play that role so well, it’s hard to ask for much more.
Both Korver and Smith excel at playing off James. Smith just knows where to be, especially in late clock situations where the Cavs need him to get off a shot. The ball regularly finds him in those situations and he often delivers.
Korver gets his looks in different ways. He remains an off-ball master. He’s deceptively athletic, using changes of speed as he runs of screens to lose his defender. Cleveland has also broken out two Korver sets that have devastated their playoff opponents. The first involves a James/Korver pick and pop. It generally comes from the top of the key or the left wing and always involves James dribbling to his right while Korver screens. Defenses are left scrambling as switching puts a worse defender on James, while sticking with him off the screen leaves Korver open. Cleveland killed Toronto with this simple play over and over, as OG Anunoby and either C.J. Miles or DeMar DeRozan would switch, which left James with the advantage. When they finally trapped James, Korver started to rain triples. Boston is better positioned than Toronto to switch it, as they have no weak links in their defensive chain. Expect the Celtics to switch every time.
The second Korver set is with him and Kevin Love. They screen for each other off the ball. If the defense switches, Love gets a mismatch inside against a smaller player. If they don’t, Korver gets an open look. Again, because of their size across the board, expect Boston to switch and live with the resulting matchup.
Philly runs some similar stuff to Cleveland, so Boston just saw these actions. They also learned on the fly about the importance of sticking with shooters. Joel Embiid had a big impact and Ben Simmons came and went, but the Sixers shooters never got going against the Celtics tight defense. That should continue vs the Cavaliers.
It’s on the other end of the floor where Boston has to make hay. Neither Smith nor Korver has any chance of guarding Tatum or Brown. And the Cavs don’t have the defender to go to off the bench either. Remember how Boston relentlessly went at Redick all series? And how they attacked Robert Covington off the bounce? They’re going to do the same to Cleveland. Rozier and Horford will get theirs, but Tatum and Brown have to lead the way for Boston to win.
Advantage: Celtics. This matchup is pretty simple. If Boston can play it out like they did against Philadelphia, they’ll have a huge advantage. Neither Korver nor Smith is making anything happen off the dribble. The Celtics need to stay tight with them, switch aggressively and go right at them on the other end. Unlike Milwaukee or Philadelphia, Ty Lue doesn’t really have anyone to turn to off his bench to slow down the Boston wings if they get it going.
Al Horford and Aron Baynes vs LeBron James and Kevin Love
This is where it gets tricky and can flip Cleveland’s way big time. The Cavs lineup is almost assuredly going to be as is laid out here. Does Brad Stevens stick with Baynes in the starting five? Or does he downsize and bring in Marcus Morris or Semi Ojeleye. The guess here is that he sticks with Baynes, at least to open the series. If it isn’t working early, Stevens will sub quicker than any other coach in the league.
Assuming it opens with the Horford/Baynes pairing, Horford will have his third helping of defending a high usage player, unusual for a big man. After doing work against Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first round, Horford was the main force in shutting down Ben Simmons. He’s shown all year, playoffs included, why he’s a first team All-Defense player. That said, James presents a challenge unlike the other two.
Let’s start with the fact that James is a better and more willing, if inconsistent, shooter than either Antetokounmpo or Simmons. The Celtics aren’t going to sag way off him and dare James to beat them with jumpers, because they’ve seen him do it to them time and again. And while the other two are willing drivers, James is arguably the most willing driver in the NBA. Where Antetokounmpo and Simmons might hesitate just slightly at the sight of the 6’10’’ Horford waiting near the rim, James won’t give it any notice and will power right up and over for the finish.
James being able to hit jumpers and not caring about a defender lying in wait is challenge one. Challenge two is that James might be the best passer in the history of the NBA. Antetokounmpo is still developing that skill and Simmons, while already very good, he often gets caught in the air without knowing where he’s going with the ball. James doesn’t have that issue. He’s always under control and surrounded by shooting almost the entire time he’s on the court. James is a great scorer, but he’s an even better passer. He drives looking to pass, not to score. Horford has been up to the task so far, but this is a matchup unlike any he’s taken on to this point.
As for Love, he remains a deadly shooter from behind the arc, as he’s at 38.5 percent for the playoffs. But his once masterful inside game has largely left town. He’s struggling at just 40 percent on two-pointers. Boston has the size to throw at him across the board, so they won’t hesitate to switch and live with him trying to post almost anyone. If Love starts doing work inside, or off the dribble, the Celtics will have to change things up. But they’ll start by chasing him off the arc and forcing him to beat them inside.
On offense, Horford has become a post-up machine in the playoffs. He’ll go at anyone at any time. This includes James. He’s also doing his thing and facilitating offense from outside. His ability to pull defenders out of the key isn’t as big in this series, from the standpoint of drawing rim protectors away from the paint, because Cleveland doesn’t have one. Where it does show up is pulling James or Love or the backup bigs outside, which can take them out of the rebounding action. The Celtics have gone to the offensive glass more in the playoffs, using the length and athleticism of their guards and wings to get second chances. That should show up again in this series.
Baynes ability to hit the three, as he showed against the Sixers, helps in that regard as well. Love remains one of the best rebounds in the league, but that comes when he’s around the paint. If Love is outside, he’s not athletic enough to crash back inside for rebounds. Look for Baynes to play his game of setting screens and then floating to the perimeter. Then when you least expect it, he’ll hit the Cavs with a roll to the rim, or a duck in for a quick post-up.
Advantage: Cavaliers. When LeBron James is involved, his team always has the advantage in that particular matchup. But the Celtics can get some things done here, especially on offense. Keeping this one even relatively close would be a win for Boston.
Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Semi Ojeleye, Greg Monroe vs Jeff Green, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Tristan Thompson
Assuming Boston sticks with Baynes in the starting lineup, they’ll probably play just three guys on a regular basis. Smart is back to the bench, because with Shane Larkin injured, the Celtics need a ball handler on the second unit. But he’ll play starter’s minutes and be a part of the closing lineup. He’s doing all the things you expect from him: playing lockdown defense, getting to every loose ball and hitting the occasional three. He’s also showing up big as a pick and roll ball handler and making the correct play in most situations.
Morris has been an enigma in the playoffs. He’s scoring 12.3 points per game, but has been incredibly inefficient while doing so. He’s hitting just over 35 percent of his shots overall, mostly because he continues to over-dribble and then settles for contested, long two-pointers. To add to the struggles, a lot of those jumpers end up with Morris sprawled on the floor looking for a foul, while the opponents head the other way. When he’s stuck to spot up three-pointers, he’s been fine. He’s hitting 38.6 percent from deep. He can’t let Cleveland chase him off the line, only to settle for a mid-range jumper. If he’s chased off the line, he has to drive it all the way to the rim. There isn’t an Embiid or John Henson or Thon Maker waiting there in this series. You can also expect Morris to get plenty of minutes on James. He’s had some moderate success in the past against James, and he was the Celtics secondary defender on Simmons for most of the Sixers series.
Continuing the next man up philosophy is Semi Ojeleye. With Larkin out of the rotation, causing other’s roles to adjust, Ojeleye will likely find himself with more minutes. He’s another body the Celtics will throw at James for five to six minutes a game. The key for Ojeleye is that he’s not a complete negative on offense during those minutes. He needs to take open shots, drive closeouts and keep the ball moving. Essentially, play the same role that Morris has to play.
Finally, don’t be surprised if Greg Monroe is unearthed in this series. If Tristan Thompson gets run for Cleveland, Monroe is a nice counter for Boston. He hasn’t played much in the playoffs, but he’s stayed ready when he’s called upon. Look for Brad Stevens to use Monroe when he needs an offensive lift. Being able to throw him the ball in the post for a few possessions often helps settle everyone down.
The Cavs bench has been a non-existent mess in the playoffs. Old friend Jeff Green is the only player Lue can count on, and he’s been solid. He’s regularly part of Cleveland’s closing lineup, while also spelling James for the few minutes he sits each half. All the Cavaliers ask him to do is play defense, run the floor and take open shots. Nothing complicated, which fits Green perfectly.
Beyond Green, the Cavs haven’t had much. Clarkson and Hood have looked overwhelmed in the playoffs. Hood has been awful on both ends and raised some controversy when he refused to enter a game against the Raptors. Clarkson has been even worse. He’s struggled with the speed and intensity of the postseason on offense and has continued his usual struggles on defense. If neither of them show up, Cleveland could be in trouble, as they are asking older guards and wings to play big minutes against some young, fresh legs.
Up front, the Cavs really only go with Thompson on occasion, as Larry Nance Jr. has been out of the rotation for the most part. With those two on the bench, Green has gotten the bulk of the backup big minutes behind James and Love. The challenge for Thompson is that the game has somewhat passed him by. He’s not able to consistently switch out on perimeter players like he once was and his offensive game is limited to only scoring inside. He has shown up big against Boston in the past though and maybe has a throwback performance in him.
Advantage: Celtics. Despite Larkin being out, Boston knows they can count on Smart to make some game-changing plays. Morris, despite being inefficient, does provide some offense. Ojeleye gives it his all on defense and Monroe can help. The Celtics will miss Larkin changing the energy when the team needs a lift, but they still have the advantage over the Cavs, who can really only count on Green to give them anything off the bench.
Brad Stevens vs Ty Lue
Love has been heaped upon Brad Stevens so much throughout the first two rounds, that the tide of opinion has actually started to turn against him somewhat. The last few days the NBA world is littered with “It isn’t like he has no talent at all.” That is then countered by “Boston lost Kyrie and Hayward!” And rinse/repeat.
On the other side, Lue remains underrated in his ability to coach one of the most difficult to coach players in the history of the game. It isn’t that James is a coach-killer, because he’s not. The challenge is that when the Cavs win, James gets the credit. When they lose, Lue gets the blame. Such is life when you coach the game’s best player. That said, Lue has adjusted his rotation and gone with his vets. He and James are going with their guys that have helped get them there before. If they go down, they’re going down their way.
Advantage: Celtics. The reality is that Stevens can be trusted upon to draw up a play when Boston needs one, no matter what personnel he has available. Lue is smart enough to say “Get LeBron the ball and get out of his way.” Both ways are things you can trust, because neither one lets you down. But when it comes to make a subtle tweak from game to game, or even in-game itself, Stevens is going to do that. And that could make the difference.
This series, as Jeff Clark nailed in the link above, feels familiar. But it also feels so different. And it still feels like Boston is cheated somehow. The Celtics Christmas present was taken away. Yet, just like that storm knocking out the power, Stevens adjusted and has managed to turn potentially dark days into a rollicking good time. Now the question is: can he and his team keep this unlikely train chugging forward to a destination many expected, but never really thought the Celtics would get to?