For the second straight season, the Celtics and Cavaliers meet in the Eastern Conference Finals. This is the first time in 30 years that the Celtics have made back to back Conference Finals. These are much different teams than met in the conference finals last season and even much different from the teams who met on opening night this season.
The Celtics have 4 players (Rozier, Smart, Horford, Brown) left from last year’s ECF while the Cavs have 5 (James, Smith, Thompson, Love and Korver). Since they played on opening night, the Celtics have lost Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, and Daniel Theis and they gained Greg Monroe. The Cavs traded Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert and added Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Kendrick Perkins, Okaro White, and George Hill.
The Cavs won 2 of 3 games from the Celtics this season. Of course they barely beat the Celtics on opening night at the Garden when Gordon Hayward went down with the injury and they won the game in February right after the trade deadline. The Celtics won the game at home in January in the Garden. Both of these teams had 7 game first round series. The Celtics second round series went 5 games while the Cavs dispatched their second round foes in 4 games.
The Celtics have a 7 game home win streak in the playoffs and have yet to lose on their home court. Cleveland lost Game 1 at home vs the Pacers and then have reeled off 5 straight wins at home. The Celtics averaged 110.9 points with a 103.3 defensive rating in those 7 home wins. The Cavs averaged 118.5 points while shooting 51.6% from the field and 41.1% from beyond the arc against the Raptors.
The Celtics and Cavaliers have previously met 7 times in the playoffs. The Celtics have a 4-3 lead in series wins while the Cavs have a 20-18 edge in individual game wins. The Celtics are missing Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, and Daniel Theis, who are out for the rest of the playoffs. Shane Larkin is questionable with a sprained shoulder. For the second straight series, their opponent has no injuries to report.
The Cavs started Hill, Korver, Smith, James and Love in the series vs the Raptors and have listed that same starting lineup in the game notes for this game. In the final meeting between these teams in the regular season, the Cavs started Cedi Osman at the 3 and Tristan Thompson at center. They have gone with Love at center and the more experienced Korver in the starting lineup.
In each of the games in the regular season, the Celtics started Marcus Morris at the 4 with Horford at center. Marcus Morris has a history of being one of the better defenders against James and Horford may matchup better against Love with Baynes the better matchup with Thompson. Brad has announced that he will start Morris with Baynes going to the bench.
Probable Celtics Starters
Gordon Hayward (ankle) out
Daniel Theis (knee) out
Kyrie Irving (knee) out
Shane Larkin (shoulder) out
Probable Cavaliers Starters
Larry Nance Jr
Marcus Morris vs LeBron James
Marcus Morris will be tasked with slowing down LeBron, who is averaging 34.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 9.0 assists. He is shooting 55.3% while playing 41.4 minutes per game. During his last 11 regular season and playoff games against Morris, James averaged 21.1 ppg while shooting 16.3% from deep. One player will not be able to slow LeBron down by himself, however, and so we could see several players on him during each game. Whoever is matched up with LeBron will need to make him work on defense and it’s possible the Celtics can wear him down in the big minutes that he plays.
Al Horford vs Kevin Love
Love is averaging 14.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.2 assists for the playoffs, but he averaged 20.5 points ad 11.5 rebounds against the Raptors. He is also shooting 39.4% from beyond the arc, so Al has to stay with him whether he is in the paint or on the perimeter. Al is making a case for the All Defensive team in these playoffs and needs to continue to play tough defense in this one as containing Love may be even more important than defending LeBron.
Jaylen Brown vs Kyle Korver
Brown missed the first game against Philadelphia with a sore hamstring and struggled somewhat in the first couple of games he played in that series. He was looking good by Game 5 and hopefully the few days off between series will mean that he is back to 100%. Korver is averaging 10.5 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists while shooting 46% from beyond the arc. He is not known for playing lock down defense and so Brown should be able to score against him while also having the size to bother him on defense.
Celtics Bench vs Cavaliers Bench
The Celtics have Smart, Morris, Ojeleye, Monroe and possibly Larkin that they will depend on to play when the starters need a rest. We may also see a Yabusele or Nader sighting depending on the matchups and foul situation. The Cavs depend heavily on Green, Clarkson, Hood, Calderon, Nance and Thompson off their bench. The Celtics reserves need to come in and make a difference and beat the Cavs reserves while the starters rest. It might be worth noting that the Cavs have 3 former Celtics on their roster: Perkins, Green and Zizic.
Keys to the Game
Defense Defense Defense!! Defense is key to winning every game. The Cavs are averaging 103.5 points (9th) while the Celtics are averaging 104.1 points (8th). The Celtics are 7th with a defensive rating of 105.8 while the Cavs are 10th with a defensive rating of 108.4. The Celtics are capable of playing very good defense if they put the effort into it. If the Celtics win this game , it will be because of their tough lock down defense.
Rebound - This was the Celtics’ biggest weakness last season but the team has more length and more athleticism this season and are rebounding much better. Much of rebounding is effort and so the Celtics have to work hard to beat the Cavs to rebounds. The Cavs are averaging 38.5 rebounds while the Celtics are averaging 42.4 rebounds. If the Celtics put out effort, they can win the rebounding battle.
Be Aggressive - The Celtics must be the more aggressive team. They have to beat the Cavs to every loose ball and win the 50/50 plays. They have to be aggressive on the boards and in driving into the paint and to the basket. The more aggressive team will usually get the benefit of the doubt from the refs but sometimes that doesn’t work with LeBron. The Celtics have to be the team that works harder and the team that wants it more.
Start Strong and Play 48 Minutes - The Celtics can’t start out slowly and allow the Cavs to get a big lead as they are a tough team to come back against. They also can’t afford to let up at any time in the game or the Cavs will make them pay for it. The Celtics must start strong and play hard throughout the game. No let up!!!
Control LeBron’s Supporting Cast - It’s almost impossible to stop a player like LeBron who gets the benefit of most of the calls and can drive and dip his shoulder into any defenders as he goes to the basket. But, the Celtics can slow down Love, Korver, Hill and Smith along with the players off the bench. They have to make it as tough on LeBron as they can on both ends of the court but they have to clamp down on his teammates and try to stop them.
Move the Ball - The Celtics get into trouble when they take quick shots and don’t move the ball enough to get the defense out of position. Their assists are usually down in their losses and up in the wins. They have to move the ball and find the open man. No hero ball. They also have to be careful with their passes and not turn the ball over as the Cavs are averaging 15.5 points off turnovers.
Focus - The Celtics have to remain focused and block out the distractions of playing the Cavs and the circus that always surrounds them, especially in the Conference Finals. They also need to focus on playing their game rather than on what the Cavs are doing and all the hoopla surrounding the game.
Home Game - The Celtics have the advantage of playing at home in front of what should be a very loud crowd. The Celtics have to get motivation and energy from the crowd. The Cavs are a more experienced team than the young Bucks and Sixers and may not be rattled by the Celtics crowd but they can sometimes influence the refs and boost the home team.
Officiating - The officiating is always an x-factor. In some games so far the officiating was very good and they let both teams play and let some contact go both ways but didn’t let it get out of hand. In some others the refs were not good and called it more one sided. Hopefully we avoid Tony Brothers and Scott Foster and have fair and even officiating.
Mark Davis is the lead referee in this game and in an LA Times survey in 2016, players and coaches voted him one of the worst referees in the league so he may very well be an X-factor. Here are a couple of quotes from the article about Davis:
“He’s cool as they come, but he’s so arrogant,” one player said. “He instigates things sometimes. Marc will go back at a player. He forgets that he’s talking to another man. Don’t challenge a man’s manhood. Now you are going too far.”
“Marc Davis is hands down the worst,” a player said. “He acts likes he’s your friend, but he’ll just screw you. He’ll screw you and he’ll get the biggest attitude about it.”
He called Game 2 of the Bucks series and Game 1 of the Sixers series and he was decent in both.