The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers have three days of preparation to ponder the most pressing questions of their Eastern Conference finals rematch. Here is one answer for each day.
Can the Celtics slow LeBron James?
Nobody stops LeBron, and the Celtics know this better than anyone. Since he eviscerated them in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals and exorcized his demons in Boston, James is 10-1 in the playoffs against the C’s. Eight of those wins were against Brad Stevens-coached teams over the past three seasons, and half of them came in Cleveland’s five-game conference finals victory last year.
This Celtics squad turned over all but four members of that 2017 roster — veteran All-Star big man Al Horford and former first-round picks Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown. That quartet now makes up half of Stevens’ rotation following the injuries to All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
Despite those losses, these Celtics may be better equipped to slow LeBron than their predecessors. As the NBA’s top-ranked defense proved with stellar defensive performances against Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and Philadelphia 76ers sensation Ben Simmons through the first two rounds, Boston has as many bodies to throw at imposing playmakers as any team in the league. This was arguably Toronto’s greatest weakness last round, and it might be Boston’s biggest strength.
James had his way with Brown last year, but the uber-athletic 21-year-old former No. 3 overall pick has had another year’s worth of seasoning as a starter on a team that allowed a league-low 101.5 points per 100 possessions during the regular season. His performance in a closeout Game 5 against the Sixers suggests the hamstring that cost him the opening game of that series may be behind him. In two games opposite the Cavaliers this season, Brown defended James for the bulk of possessions (57) and enjoyed mild success, holding him to 1-for-5 shooting from distance and forcing three turnovers.
Boston targeted Marcus Morris for his relative fortune defending James with the Detroit Pistons a year ago. He spent more time on James than anyone but Brown during the regular season, and he wasn’t much of a stopper. James posted 24 points and 10 assists in what amounted to a half’s worth of work.
The Celtics will also send Horford, Smart, Tatum and Semi Ojeleye at James, defending by committee and spreading the inevitable fouls. Ojeleye is built like a tank with the quickness of a Ducati and was Boston’s best weapon against LeBron during the regular season, holding him to six points on six shots in a limited but impressive 39-possession sample size. The rookie second-round pick’s insertion into the starting lineup helped slow Antetokounmpo and swing that series Boston’s way in seven games.
It will be fascinating to see if the Celtics employ a similar strategy to the one that neutralized Giannis and Simmons, with Horford or Aron Baynes planted at the free-throw line as a second line of defense behind the primary wing defender. This helped prevent playmakers from getting into the paint, where James is even more adept at getting to the rim or finding shooters once the defense starts to collapse.
The Celtics also dared Antetokounmpo and Simmons to shoot, something they can’t do so easily with James, who has been a slightly above-average 3-point shooter the past two seasons. There’s a reason James exists in a different stratosphere than those guys. He’s so good at so many things, you can’t possibly take away everything. He’ll attack one way or another, and you might be better off living or dying by the jump shot than bleeding out from endless drive-and-kicks to the proverbial groin.
Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith are always looking to get hot. (Getty Images)
Who else can the Cavs rely on?
With Cleveland facing elimination against the Indiana Pacers in the first round, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue turned to the horses he’s won with before at LeBron’s behest, and then they rode that grouping to a sweep of the Toronto Raptors in the conference semifinals. Champions Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson all rediscovered themselves along the way, and veteran sharpshooter Kyle Korver has been a consistent threat. Even been-around-the-block swingman Jeff Green has been reliable.
As for the newcomers who represented so much hope when the Cavs traded away half their roster at the trade deadline to pull out of a tailspin, they haven’t been much help. Ex-Los Angeles Lakers Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance have been pushed down the bench, while Utah Jazz import Rodney Hood lost his job and then some. Only oft-injured veteran two-way point guard George Hill has cracked the list of Guys LeBron Can Count On, and that’s after he returned from back spasms in the first round.
Irving was a Celtics killer, carving them up in a pair of blowouts sandwiched around a 42-point outburst in a series-altering Game 4 victory in last year’s conference finals. But he’s on Boston’s bench now, nursing a surgically repaired left knee. Still, Hill has been through the ringer on playoff teams in San Antonio, Indiana and Utah over the past decade, and he could be a handful for Rozier if healthy.
The Celtics have bodies to throw at the rest of Cleveland’s vets. Horford has been a defensive monster in the playoffs, defending Giannis, Simmons and Embiid for long stretches, and he’ll likely draw Love in this series. Horford all but erased Love in two regular-season meetings this season (10 points on 16 shots in 64 possessions), and he will be tasked with taking another All-Star out of consideration.
Smart and Tatum chased J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli around screens throughout the second round, and they’ll do the same against Korver and Smith in this series. The Celtics will also look to punish Korver defensively, in much the same way they took advantage of Redick and Belinelli in the semis.
Thompson has traditionally abused the Celtics on the glass. Whether or not he comes off the bench, Boston will look to counter this time around with Baynes, who banged bodies with Embiid defensively and stretched him out on the other end with some surprisingly accurate corner 3-point shooting.
The Celtics know Green’s inconsistencies well, and they will live with the series falling on him, Cedi Osman or any other untested newcomer, especially since they have ample wings to throw at them.
The Celtics, as everyone does, face a Sophie’s Choice with LeBron — defend him one-on-one, extinguish everyone else, and dare an all-timer to beat them by himself, or send help and watch one of the game’s greatest passers find snipers all over the floor. If James can’t do this on his own, and that’s not out of the question, how much he gets from his running mates will go a long way towards determining whether we see the Cavaliers who escaped Indiana or the ones who decimated Toronto.
Will the young Celtics meet the challenge?
This is the beautiful thing about these Celtics — they’re realizing their potential before our very eyes. We don’t really know what their ceiling is yet, because they seem to push it higher with each game, thanks to nightly contributions from the under-25 contingent of Tatum, Brown, Rozier and Smart.
After averaging 23.6 points per game on 52.6 percent shooting against the 76ers, mostly opposite All-Defensive contenders Simmons and Robert Covington, Tatum is now leading the Celtics in scoring in these playoffs two months removed from his 20th birthday. He has a startling arsenal of offensive weaponry, beating bigs off the dribble and shooting over smalls. Step-backs, turnarounds, post-ups. You name it, he can probably pull it out of his quiver. He even hit ’em with a Smitty in Game 4:
Brown was the best player on the floor for long stretches of the Milwaukee series, twice eclipsing 30 points, before straining his hamstring in Game 7. The 21-year-old missed Game 1 against Philadelphia and worked off the rust on a 25-minute restriction until showing out in the clinching Game 5, scoring 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting in 31 minutes. And he’ll have three more days of rest to shake loose.
Rozier, 24, has been the breakout star of the 2018 playoffs, starting in Irving’s absence and cementing himself at the center of a couple feuds. At the start of the first round, Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe infamously wondered who he was, and then he showed him. Over and over. By the end of the second round, Rozier was taking the fight to Sixers center Joel Embiid. Rozier has been terrifyingly good, especially at home, where the Celtics hold an advantage to start the series and he has averaged 22 points on better than 50 percent shooting from 3-point range in the playoffs. Just ask Drew Bledsoe.
And Smart is Smart, a disruptive force unlike any other in the league. He’s the dude who drew consecutive charges in the final 7.3 seconds against James Harden to beat the Houston Rockets earlier this season and who hunted Simmons’ entry pass like Ed Reid in his prime to seal the Sixers series. The 24-year-old’s shooting drives Celtics fans mad, and his defense does the same to opponents. He will defend everyone on the Cavs for a spell, and when it’s over, his line will defy traditional statistics.
Behind them all is Horford, the best player in both of Boston’s series, and he’ll have Love’s defense to feast on this time. The length and strength of the lot of them makes the Celtics a matchup problem for anyone, especially a Cavaliers defense that ranked second-to-last in the NBA this season. If the Cavs plan to play Korver 30 minutes a night, as they did against Toronto, he’ll have to defend Tatum or Brown, both of whom are learning to exploit their athletic advantages with each passing possession.
Boston’s offense is by no means perfect, ranking in the league’s lower third after Irving went down in mid-March, but that number has improved by almost four points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. There’s plenty more room for improvement, given the upward trajectory of Tatum, Brown and Rozier in the absence of Irving and Hayward. It’s just a matter of how quickly they speed up the progress now.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 6.
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