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Sign me up for a Celtics-Cavaliers playoff series

It may not reach Pierce-LeBron level, but it shouldn’t disappoint.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics
Robert Williams attempts to swat a Donovan Mitchell shot in the second half Wednesday.
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Fifteen years later, the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Celtics and Cavaliers remains one of the most enthralling and exhilarating battles in franchise history.

The lasting image is Paul Pierce diving on the floor for a loose ball in Game 7 and screaming at the top of his lungs. LeBron James and Co. didn’t make it easy, but it was Pierce’s house and Pierce’s time for the future Finals MVP.

That playoff run was magical in so many ways, with each series carrying several storylines and subplots, and the Cavaliers series was as juicy as any.

Once James took his talents to South Beach, it seemed unlikely that Celtics-Cavaliers would carry much more significance anytime soon. Then, of course, James returned to the Cavs, and a new version of the rivalry emerged once Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown entered the league.

When James left again, it seemed like the rivalry was truly over, but this season, it’s generating some momentum once again. It likely won’t ever carry as much weight as those epic duels back in the late-2000’s or mid-2010’s, but it’s quickly intensifying after each meeting.

The Celtics have a better chance than the Cavs to win the championship, but the Cavs match up very well with the Celtics and will almost certainly give them a series if they meet in the playoffs.

There’s a chance the Celtics could see the Hawks in the first round, like they did in 2008, and the Cavaliers in the second round, like they did that year as well. If that happens, don’t take Cleveland lightly.

As they showed in their first two overtime wins over the Celtics, the Cavs are capable of trading blows with Boston and finding a way in the clutch. As they showed Wednesday night, even if the Celtics seize command, the Cavs are never really out of the fight.

Cleveland has the star power, balance and poise to give Boston problems. Donovan Mitchell is a top-15 player, Darius Garland complements him well and Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen are both versatile and skilled. The Cavs are legit, and it would be easy to argue that they’re the third-best team in the East and bigger threats than the Sixers.

It’s not a fluke that all three Celtics-Cavs have been close. If they meet in the playoffs, don’t expect Boston to cruise to a win in four or five games. But, do expect the Celtics to ultimately prevail.

The Celtics have two superstars, not one. They’re a better shooting team, better passing team, more experienced team and deeper team. They’re probably about even defensively, but Boston is more capable of going on runs and creating some separation.

Cleveland isn’t afraid to play a physical, grimy game when it has to, but Boston is fully capable of winning that way, too.

As he showed again Wednesday night, Al Horford can give the Cavs fits. Mobley and Allen have no choice but to guard him away from the basket, which gives Tatum and Brown space to operate.

The Cavs have elite on-ball defenders, but the Celtics’ passing is almost impossible for any team to defend when it looks the way it’s supposed to.

I, for one, hope these teams meet in the playoffs. That 2008 run would have been memorable regardless of who the Celtics faced, but the fact that they went through James to get there added another layer of mystique.

No, these Cavs don’t have James, but they do have both talent and moxie. If they do end up getting a crack at the Celtics, they’ll make them earn it, but Boston will do just that.

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