Despite the fact that I did not tune in to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, I can confirm that the Boston Celtics did, in fact, advance to the next round, which was made possible by their 115-105 victory over the Wizards.
On the other side of the card, the top-seeded Celtics will get to see player-coach (Tyron Lue’s puppet master) LeBron James’s second-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers, who were last seen moping the floor with the Toronto Raptors in Darth Vader-like fashion, cruising to a lightly-contested 4-0 series sweep.
The Cavaliers will undoubtedly have the freshness card firmly in grasp, as their last contest dates back to May 7th, which I believe was when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth (get it, because Raptors?) and will alot them a 10 day breather before Game 1 with the Celtics tomorrow night.
However, the Celtics may have more of the momentum headed their way, especially considering a morale-boosting Game 7 victory over the rivaled Washington Wizards.
Heading into Game One, FiveThiryEight projects that the Celtics are given a 52% chance to advance, while the Cavaliers see their chances at 48%, to advance to the NBA Finals to face the winner of the Golden State-San Antonio series. It should be noted that these odds are based on historical data of seeds, not on the talent/storylines of each club.
VegasInsider.com, on the other hand, would tell you the Cavaliers are the clear favorites, as they’re currently listed as they open at -465 with 5/2 odds to win the NBA Championship, where the Celtics are currently +361 with 40/1 odds to take home championship brass.
If their season series is any indicator of the outcome, then Vegas appears to be correct in their thinking, as Cleveland took three of the four match-ups from Boston, most recently on April 5th, when they went on the road to clobber the Celtics by a final score of 114-91, out-rebounding Boston 51-38.
All of this goes into the greater blender that is, ultimate, an outcomes smoothie, but none of these indicators are the key ingredient: what will determine the outcome of this series is who decides to step-up and take full control of their club’s outcome. With that considered, here are the four ways this series might go:
LeBron James continues to do LeBron James stuff, as the Cleveland Cavaliers waltz to a series sweep over the Celtics
Last time the Cavaliers and Celtics met in the NBA Playoffs, it lead to the completion of LeBron’s initial seven-year stint with Cleveland, as the Allen-Rondo-Pierce-Garnett Celtics knocked-off Cleveland in the second round 4-2.
Following this loss, James would take his talents to South Beach, where he was able to get the Celtics monkey off of his back in a separate second round appearance over that same Celitcs unit in a 4-1 victory.
Now, with the games and faces mostly rotated (the only guys remaining on either teams roster happens to be LeBron himself), the two will get a chance to rekindle their old flame.
Last time these two played, James scored a game-leading 36 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, which was second to Kevin Love’s 16.
So far in these playoffs, Cavaliers success has come into effect under the direction of the “King” himself, as indicated by his 34.4 points per game so far this postseason, which has been second only to Russell Westbrook, who averaged 37.4 in the Thunder’s opening-round exit.
While LeBron’s 34.4 PPG are something to behold on their own means, it’s the fact that he’s finishing at such a high rate that really makes his run something to behold. Shooting 57.7% from the field and 46.8% from behind the three-point arch has certainly proven fruitful to his outstanding postseason campaign.
With the league’s best player playing up to his reputation, Cleveland is averaging a 9.6 point margin-of victory this postseason over their eight-game, two series victory span, which again has come in no small part from LeBron’s dominance thus far.
Using their opening round run as a metric for determining their fate against Boston would leave many to believe that this series could be as good as over before it even tips.
Putting away a gritty Pacers club and a seemingly-LeBron-proof-but-apparently-not-even-close-to-LeBron-proof-enough Raptors club looked easy, so perhaps a Celtics butt-whoopin’ is in store.
Extending his fourth-quarter wizardry, Isaiah Thomas leads the Celtics to a 4-3 series victory, as the Celtics return to the NBA Finals
Momma, there goes that boy again!
More often then not, Boston’s Isaiah Thomas (not to be confused with Detroit Pistons’ 1990s bad boy Isiah Thomas) has had one of the more incredible seasons any NBA player under 6’0″ tall has ever carried.
Thomas’s 28.9 PPG put him third in the league in scoring (behind Westbrook and Harden), but his 9.8 points per fourth quarter is really the number to absorb.
In a lot of ways, the sub-header of this NBA season has been Thomas’s unbelievable campaign, and if it weren’t for Russell Westbrook attempting to destroy everything in sight, we might have heard even more about the 5’9″ gladiator.
When push comes to shove, it doesn’t really matter what you put on Isaiah Thomas, he continues to find ways to score in the fourth; maybe the move would be to put him on LeBron island for the final 12 minutes of regulation hoops, but I’m not even sure how well that would work.
If the Celtics are to bank on an Isaiah Thomas-led run passed Cleveland, their order of operations may take more time than planned to complete, as expecting nothing but fourth quarter perfection is pretty brazen.
Lacking on defense, emphasized by his -3.3 defensive plus/minus and 112 defensive rating (league average is 108.8, which like golf, the lower the better) contributes to a very small list of asterisk on his scouting report. Defense wins championships, but so do great players.
Considering the postseason he’s had thus far, including the loss of his sister, coming back from a 2-0 hole against the Chicago Bulls, and facing a freight-train point guard in John Wall, Thomas has proven he is a) not particularly fazed by the gravity of postseason pressure and b) he can be the driver for the continued Celtics run.
Playoff-Mode Kyrie Irving teams up with Playoff-Mode J.R. Smith for a 4-2 series advancement, bouncing Boston to return to the Finals
Two key players to the Cavaliers formula last postseason have yet to really explode yet this time around; Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith have yet to find their complete postseason forms.
For Smith, the game is pretty simple: hit your threes and don’t take dumb shots. At times, Smith has a hard time finding ways to maintain this standard, but could be a force if he can get going against Boston.
Last season, Smith averaged 11.5 PPG during the 21 games leading to the Cavaliers first NBA title, which included outbursts of at least twenty points in each round, where he never averaged less than 10 points throughout the course of a series.
Smith is averaging just 6.8 PPG this postseason, with just one game in double digit scoring (13 in Game 3 against Indiana) despite averaging 26 minutes a night.
On the other hand, the Cavaliers rode Kyrie Irving during the 2015-2016 playoffs, where the guard averaged 25.2 points per night, but in fact scored 25 points or greater in 12 of 21 games; this postseason has seen inconsistent runs, as Irving has accomplished this feat in 3 of 8 games, averaging 23.8 points per night thus far.
Irving has been, for lack of a better word, a bit stale in the grander scheme of Cavaliers postseason matters, with his field goal percentage slumped to 39.9% and three-point percentage down to 28.1%. This would be a rough undercurrent to Irving’s 47.5% FG% and 44.0% scoring figures last postseason.
These Cavaliers are far streakier than the team from a year ago, but streaky means dangerous for opposing coaches; you can’t truly game-plan for a hot hand.
Irving and Smith were the catalysts to what was an otherwise LeBron James-led conquest of the NBA crown; with similar works at play, a little love from Irving and Smith could/would go a long way towards what would lead to an eventual Cavaliers title.
Brad Stevens continues coaching mastery, underdog run, defeating reigning champion Cleveland for first trip to Finals, 3rd shot at Crown
In consecutive years, Brad Stevens led his Butler Bulldogs to the NCAA National Championship, despite losing then losing to Duke and UConn.
As the head coach of Butler, Stevens never failed to make the NCAA tournament, and missed has missed the NBA Playoffs just a single time during his four-year run with the Boston Celtics, when the team 25-57 in the first year of a significant rebuild.
So far as head coach of the Celtics, Stevens has twice lost in the first round of the playoffs, but that’s clearly not the case this year, as the Celtics are now just four wins away from the NBA Finals, with eight wins separating Stevens from his first formal championship ring.
Representing the face of what could lead to be a new wave of younger NBA coaches deriving more from college ball, Stevens has deplayed mastery in gameplaning, which was exuding from Kelly Olynyk last night against Washington, when the center dropped 26 points in 28 minutes.
Good coaches are excellent at using what they’ve got in their toy chest, and even if they don’t have the best toys, sometimes it’s quantity over quality, or just flat knowing how to use what you’ve got.
Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Jonas Jerebko, and Kelly Olynyk have all displayed an ability to explode at times in addition to being more than capable role players.
If Stephens can utilize his club as more than just a collection of superstars, finding holes in the Cavaliers attack, and creating trojan horse schemes for Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics might be able to shake off the Cavaliers without requiring their All-Star guard’s mega-heroics.