Cleveland Cavaliers vs Boston Celtics: Eastern Conference finals series preview and prediction

There will be no LeBron James-Kyrie Irving reunion, but the Boston Celtics look to prevent “The King” from making the NBA Finals as they face the Cleveland Cavaliers.

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(Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports via Reuters / David Richard)

Both the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers have reinvented themselves repeatedly from this time last year when the Cavaliers rolled past the Celtics in five games in the 2017 Eastern Conference finals before they ran into the juggernaut known as the Golden State Warriors and were themselves overrun in five.

It started with an offseason trade with each other after Kyrie Irving told Cavaliers management he no longer wanted to play with LeBron James. Cleveland acquiesced and sent him to the Celtics in a deal that netted Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and a 2018 first-round pick Boston got from Brooklyn back in 2013. It was the culmination of three moves in which the Celtics drafted Jayson Tatum with the No. 3 overall pick, another part of the trade with the Nets in 2013 and signed free agent Gordon Hayward to make themselves a contender in the East.

Those plans took a major hit five minutes into the season at Cleveland where Hayward suffered a gruesome ankle injury in Boston’s opener and was lost for the season. While Tatum learned on the job at small forward, the Celtics were battling the Toronto Raptors for Atlantic Division supremacy and the top seed in the conference. Those hopes then went up in smoke in late March when Irving had to undergo season-ending knee surgery.

Yet Boston persevered and finished second in the conference. They outlasted the Milwaukee Bucks in seven games in the first round and then finished off the up-and-coming Philadelphia 76ers in five games in the conference semifinals, with the expectation they will square off in the playoffs for many years to come.

While Boston dealt with losing Hayward, Cleveland waited for Thomas to get healthy and endured more than a few difficulties because their defense failed to show up some nights. By the time the diminutive scoring guard was healthy in January, however, it quickly became clear Thomas and James could not co-exist offensively and something needed to be done.

The Cavaliers went for the nuclear option at the trade deadline, blowing up the roster around James to bring in George Hill and Rodney Hood from Sacramento and Utah, respectively, and landing Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. from the Los Angeles Lakers for Thomas and their own 2018 first-round pick while keeping the lottery-bound one from Boston.

Again, there were struggles of chemistry and cohesion, especially on the defensive end, but the Cavaliers did enough as they finished fourth in the East. Since the playoffs began, however, it has been the transcendence of James’ game that has been the talk of the postseason as he has willed the Cavaliers into the conference finals once more, first by outlasting the Indiana Pacers in seven games before ripping the heart out of the Toronto Raptors with a second-round sweep.

Now these teams, different in style and substance, meet with a chance to reach the NBA Finals. Or for James, return there for an eighth consecutive season. This space looks at the five burning questions this series presents to both teams.

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