By Travis Babcock
The atmosphere in the Garden that night was electric. Kevin Garnett had just registered a big time triple double and the Boston Celtics capped off a series clinching game 6 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Lebron James walked towards the locker room as the cameras panned his way just in time to catch him removing his number 23 jersey. Many wondered if that would be the final time we ever saw Lebron James don the Cavs’ wine and gold.
The rest is history. Lebron takes his talents to south beach, wins not one but two rings for the Miami Heat, returns to Cleveland and brings the organization their first championship in franchise history. Along the way James gets revenge and defeats the Boston Celtics four times in 7 years, dismantling the team relentlessly, doing all he can to ensure he would never relive that bitter taste in his mouth as he walked off the parquet floor on that fateful night in June 2010. That loss would prove to be the last time he felt the sting of defeat before the NBA finals.
We have yet another Eastern Conference Finals showdown against King James and his Cleveland Cavaliers, a rematch of last year’s matchup and the 7th installment in the Lebron era. Lebron has made a career of killing the Celtics, averaging 29.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 6.8 apg, 2.2 spg and 1.2 bpg in last year’s matchup and tallying more points against the Celtics than any other individual player in NBA history.
Things have changed quite drastically since last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. With a total of 9 returning players from both teams and none of the players suiting up from the off seasons biggest blockbuster trade, there isn’t much to analyze from that series. The new look Boston Celtics’ dismantling and disposing of the Philadelphia 76ers in 5 games has the team riding high coming into the matchup with home court advantage on their side. The Cavs struggled in their first round series against the Indiana Pacers, eeking out a game 7 victory only to turn around and make mincemeat of the Toronto Raptors in a 4 game sweep.
No, we won’t get to see the much sought after Kyrie vs Lebron matchup that seemed all but destined since game one of the season, and there will not be an Isaiah Thomas revenge series against his former Celtics. Nonetheless this matchup definitely has a whole lot of tasty content headed our way. The Celtics boast a roster led by the savvy veteran Al Horford, who has been an absolutely dominant force this postseason, outplaying Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Bucks series and Joel Embiid in the 76ers matchup. With a line of 17 ppg, 8,7 rpg, 3.3 ast, while shooting 58% from the floor, he has taken his game to a whole new level as he has rallied this young and hungry team around him. Jayson Tatum has looked like a 5th year vet, making big shot after big shot without hesitation or even the smallest hint of fear, all while outplaying and at times humiliating his rookie counterpart in Ben Simmons. No moment has been too big for Jaylen Brown, who is averaging 16.9 ppg while shooting the lights out from downtown, sinking 41.5% of his threes. Terry Rozier, or Scary Terry as the Celtic faithful like to call him these days, has been absolutely unbelievable since being asked to fill in for Kyrie Irving. He has exploded onto the spotlight and is making a big name for himself across the nation with his on court play and off court antics with Eric aka ‘Drew” Bledsoe.
Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics drives to the basket during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on February 11, 2018 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
As for the Cavaliers, well it has been a roller coaster ride of a season. After the big offseason trade that saw their number 2 in Kyrie Irving go, many feared that Isaiah Thomas would not fit well in the system the Cavs had in place, despite Thomas’s incredible 2017 campaign. These fears soon became reality as the team struggled mightily out of the gate, going 31-22 before Isaiah was shipped to the Lakers for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. This seemed to be the saving grace for the Cavs, as they have gone 27-13 since the flurry of trades on the deadline that changed the whole complexion of the team. Oh, and they have the greatest basketball player on the face of the Earth on their side. Since entering the playoffs the core of the team surrounding Lebron has slipped up a bit, putting a tremendous amount of weight on James’s shoulders. He has responded with playoff averages of 34.4 ppg, 9.4 rpg, and 9 apg, absolutely carrying the team through the first two rounds.
So the question is- can this young and hungry Celtics team find a way to end Lebron’s chokehold on the rest of the East, defeating their demons of the past and make their first appearance in the NBA Finals since 2010? With home court advantage on their side, meaning a potential game 7 would be played in the comforts of TD Garden and not in the Q, sure anything is possible! There are 4 keys to a Celtics victory in this matchup to illustrate.
- Make Lebron a score first, pass second player. James is a do it all guy that can destroy a team from all areas of the court, but his teammates are a lackluster group that possess major consistency issues. Lebron is no stranger to a poor supporting cast, but it remains Cleveland’s biggest flaw and the area the Celtics need to focus most of their attention. The team needs to do everything they can to limit everyone around Lebron and do their best to guard James 1 on 1. Do not send help, as he will just pass out of it and find a wide open Korver for a three or a cutting Love for a slam. If the Celtics can make Lebron feel the need to score everything, they may be able to pull the rest of his team out of rhythm and force misses when Lebron does in fact look to them to score. When the 4th quarter comes around and Lebron tires of relentlessly attacking the teeth of the Celtic’s number one ranked defense he may miss some big shots and with his teammates taken out of the game the Celtics should have some opportunities to come away with a victory. If they can hold everyone surrounding Lebron to 60-65 points per game in the series, they may have a fighting chance.
Brad Stevens. I can’t say it enough- the man is the best coach in the NBA and has found a way to take a team missing their two best players to the precipice of the NBA Finals. He has flat out coached his opposition in the first two rounds, making brilliant both in game and between game adjustments that placed the team in the best possible position to win. In game 3 against the 76ers, he called up not one but two plays that resulted in layups at the end of the game that netted an emotional victory, driving the dagger through the hearts of the 76ers. He is well on his way to his first Coach of the Year Award, and will need to be at his best in the toughest and most important matchup of his young career. He will need to come up with a master game plan to guard Lebron, limit his teammates, and make in game adjustments to whatever Cleveland counters with. Don’t be shocked if we see some lineup adjustments frequently throughout this series. Stevens inserted Semi Ojeleye into the starting lineup in the final three games of the Milwaukee series to guard Giannis, only to see his role minimized in the 76ers series, playing 9.6 minutes per game. Expect a bigger role in this series for Semi, as he will be asked to guard Lebron during stretches. Brad will continue to get Brown and Tatum the best looks possible, and make Horford a focal point of the offense.
- Sustainability of the success of the core. With the exception of Al Horford, this Celtics team has built a successful postseason run on the backs of three young talents. Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier have been instrumental in the success of the team,. Tatum has been out of his mind, averaging 18.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, and 3.2 apg while consistently shining his brightest in the biggest moments of each game, calling for the ball and taking without fear big shot after big shot. For the exception of a few missed free throws in game 3 against the 76ers, most of these shots end up finding the bottom of the net. Jaylen Brown has shown tremendous progress from last season’s playoff run, highlighted by his 10-13 shooting night in game 5 of the 76ers series, going off for 24 points in the victory. Rozier has been so successful that some rumors have spread that the Celtic’s should consider trading Kyrie Irving and keeping Rozier on as the starting point guard. The big concern is that they are still very young (Rozier is the oldest at 24 years) and they face a mammoth of a task in playing against Lebron James. If the core can continue to prosper as the series goes on it would prove invaluable to the ultimate success of the team as a whole.
- Role players. Boston boasts a much deeper and more talented bench than the Cavs, and will look to utilize it to their advantage throughout this series. Marcus Morris, Semi Ojeleye, and Aaron Baynes will be expected to step up for the team and play some valuable minutes. The Celtics will need a lot more out of Marcus Morris than what they got throughout the 76ers series, as he didn’t look like himself, averaging only 10 ppg on 30% shooting. If the team has any chance at pulling the upset off, they need him to play like he did when he put up 19 ppg in the month of March, taking over games and keeping the team aflot by making shots when the rest of the team can’t buy a bucket. Marcus Smart will need to continue being a bulldog and provide the team with a shot of adrenaline when the offense disappears and Cleveland starts making runs. Hopefully the team will have Shane Larkin back soon to provide a change of pace and give a spark of energy off the bench. If the role players can build off of the success in the past two matchups, and find ways to not only limit Cleveland’s bench but build on leads given to them by the starters, the Celtics will be in a good spot to win this series.
Prediction- I’m picking the Celtics in a tough fought 7 game series. The Celtics boast arguably 5 of the 7 best players in this series, and hold matchup advantages in every position in the starting lineup with the one exception of Lebron James. The Cavaliers roster is so poor this season that Marcus Smart, with a playoff scoring average of just 10.8 ppg, would be the 3rd highest scorer on the Cavs. Boston’s core should be able to at least sustain the success they have had during the first two rounds, and it should be just enough to sneak away with a game 7 victory in the TD Garden behind the greatest fans in the world (I may be a bit bias, but hey it’s true!) . The Celtics will finally get their long awaited payback on Lebron and make it back to the NBA finals for the first time since 2010.
Regardless of what the outcome may be- what a heck of a season for these Celtics. To go through the adversity they have and to be in the position they are in, it is a truly remarkable and noteworthy accomplishment. The future is bright in Boston but for now it’s time to sit back and savor the fact that your Boston Celtics are headed back to the Eastern Conference Finals.