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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Cleveland Versus Boston Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

# 1 Boston (53-29) vs. #2 Cleveland (51-31)

Season series: Cleveland, 3-1

Boston can win if…Isaiah Thomas is the best player on the court for extended periods of time and if Boston's rugged crew of perimeter defenders can "limit" LeBron James to something along the lines of "merely" 25 ppg, 8 rpg, 6 apg while not letting Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love exceed their regular season averages and not letting Kyle Korver shoot open three pointers like fish in a barrel.

Thomas has been a fourth quarter killer all season long and the Celtics will need his finishing touch (assuming that they can keep the games close enough for this to matter). It has become fashionable to pick against Boston as a "weak" number one seed but the Celtics overcame a 2-0 deficit to beat Chicago in the first round--albeit with Rajon Rondo's injury obviously affecting that result--and then survived a seven game battle royale against Washington, one of the hottest teams in the NBA after starting off the season sluggishly.

Thomas has been Boston's best playoff performer (25.4 ppg, 6.5 apg) but he has received a lot of help, including double figure scoring from Al Horford (16.1 ppg), Avery Bradley (15.8 ppg) and Jae Crowder (13.2 ppg). Also, Kelly Olynyk (9.7 ppg) came up huge in game seven versus Washington. Horford was brought in to be a difference maker and help this team rise to contending status. While Horford's numbers do not jump off the page, his impact on both ends of the court is significant.

Cleveland will win because…LeBron James is playing at a historically great level in the 2017 playoffs, averaging 34.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg and 7.1 apg while shooting .557 from the field.

Kyrie Irving is a big-time shot maker; he reminds me a lot of Andrew Toney--a fearless player in clutch moments who is primarily a scorer but who has underrated passing skills. Like Toney, Irving is perhaps not quite good enough to be the best player on a championship team but he is perfectly cast as a secondary star on a championship team. Irving is averaging 23.8 ppg and 5.8 apg in the playoffs after averaging 25.2/5.8 in the regular season, though Irving's field goal percentage has dropped precipitously in the postseason (from .473 to .399).

Kevin Love is playing the Chris Bosh third option role to perfection, averaging 13.8 ppg and 9.1 rpg in the playoffs while spreading the court with his shooting touch (.401 3FG% in the playoffs).

Kyle Korver is shooting .485 from three point range in the playoffs, making it difficult to send double teams at James, Irving or Love.

Cleveland is a solid rebounding team, while the Celtics ranked 27th in the NBA in that category during the regular season. The Cavaliers will likely make more three pointers than the Celtics and thus the Celtics are doomed unless they can compensate by generating extra possessions via rebounds and/or turnovers.

James complained about his supporting cast not being good enough and now he has former All-Stars Korver and Deron Williams coming off of the bench to supplement the efforts of the James-Irving-Love Big Three. This is one of the deepest and most complete teams in recent memory, although the Cavaliers are obviously not quite as top heavy with talent as the Golden State Warriors, who sacrificed depth for starting lineup star power, while the Cavaliers actually have both starting lineup star power and depth.

Other things to consider: I do not like the way that LeBron James and the Cavaliers treated the regular season like it was a secondary consideration but they must feel vindicated by that approach after sweeping through the first two playoff rounds with an 8-0 record. The Cavaliers have the better team on paper and they have the best player in the league performing at a very high level. Boston's only trump is home court advantage. Cleveland is clearly the favorite.

Yet, Boston has a chance. The Celtics have proven to be tough-minded and resilient. There is also the undeniable fact that on several occasions in the playoffs--2010, 2011, 2014--LeBron James has allowed lesser players to outperform him for significant stretches of key games. Whether one terms this quitting or entering "chill mode," it is very unusual for an all-time great to do this, particularly on multiple occasions on the biggest stage.

One could argue or assume that James has outgrown this flaw/tendency but because it happened several times--and as recently as three years ago--it is hard to ever completely trust James' effort in the clutch the way one would trust Russell, Jordan, Duncan or Bryant.

I expect the Cavaliers to win in six games. By mentioning James' history I am not "hating" and I am not hedging on my prediction--but I am saying that if Boston wins in seven after Thomas scores 15 in the final stanza while James is passive this would be surprising but not shocking, because we have seen a similar script before.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:32 PM

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3 Comments:

At Wednesday, May 17, 2017 9:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The East is a complete joke, even moreso than usual. Hard to see BOS making this series competitive. 41-41 8-seed CHI probably biggest challenge to CLE in East. CLE would've been in the 4-6 seed range in West, out by 2nd round at best. James status amongst the games greats gets enhanced so much playing in the B division, only having to go through 1 tough series, maybe 2 at most. He'd be lucky to have even one title if he played in West his entire career. 1st round matchups in the West are often tougher than ECF opps for James.

 
At Thursday, May 18, 2017 11:24:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...

This is the most consistently dominant I've ever seen LeBron in the post-season. I keep waiting for him to have one of his lapses in focus for a game or two but it's looking like he might sweep these Celtics as well. They don't really seem to be able to have someone sturdy enough to guard him.

 
At Thursday, May 18, 2017 8:05:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Agreed with Keith, and I disagree with Anonymous.

The Celtics were exposed easily last night. Their lack of size is quite telling, and a factor in their inability to rebound. Being undersized at three positions (point, guard, and forward) is more problematic than having a true center, a rim protector. That said, I wondered to myself why didn't the Celtics stop switching on defense and just go under the screens, tempt LBJ into taking the open jumper.

 

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