(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.
Question 1 - Who is going to stop LeBron James?
The polite answer? Well, it will start with Tatum and likely Marcus Morris coming off the bench. Al Horford will likely get a turn or two, and maybe Aron Baynes will use some of his six fouls trying (and most likely failing) to stop James from throwing down a vicious dunk that will go viral on social media get over one million YouTube hits.
Rookie Semi Ojeleye will definitely see some minutes in this task, and perhaps fellow rookie Guerschon Yabusele as well. And while not last in the pecking order, guard Marcus Smart will also get his chance at James after doing yeoman work against 6' 10" 76ers point guard Ben Simmons last round.
The real answer? Only LeBron James can stop LeBron James, especially in this postseason. His stat line this postseason is absurd: 34.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.55 steals and 1.0 blocks while shooting 55.3 percent from the field. He has eight double-doubles and two triple-doubles in 11 postseason games, four 40-point games and two other 30-point efforts.
The challenge for the Celtics is keeping James out of the paint and turning him into a pull-up shooter, not necessarily only a jump shooter. He has made just 15 of 52 from 3-point range (28.8 percent) in the playoffs and is 15 for 39 on shots from five to 14 feet. The qualifier on the second part of that first sentence is because James is 23 for 42 (54.8 percent) on shots from 15 to 19 feet. Boston must make him move laterally to have any noticeable success in slowing him down.
Question 2 - Can Jayson Tatum sustain his breakout postseason?
It will be a real challenge for the Celtics rookie to keep scoring 20 points a night, especially considering James will probably ask for this defensive assignment at points throughout this series.
While Tatum deserves all the accolades he has received in raising his scoring average from 13.9 points in the regular season to 18.8 in the playoffs while recording a Celtics rookie record seven consecutive 20-point games, he also has been the beneficiary of favorable matchups created by both opponents and his coach.
The Bucks were, for all intents and purposes, defense-optional, and the 76ers could not find a suitable cover on Tatum as both J. J. Redick and Robert Covington struggled to keep up with Tatum when he would drive baseline. He has taken 43.5 percent of his 170 shots at the rim, and like his scoring average, that will be hard to sustain if James is guarding him given James not only moves quickly but does so while weighing 45 more pounds.
Tatum has averaged 5.6 free throw attempts in the postseason, the question is if James is guarding him, how many calls is a rookie going to get on offense against the league's best player?
Question 3 - Can Kevin Love and Kyle Korver take advantage of the Celtics defense?
Love and Korver are playoff-savvy veterans at their finest, and Love in particular enjoyed a resurgence in the second-round sweep of the Raptors by averaging 20.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in the four-game sweep.
The two, along with James, have a set play in which Love makes like he will set a screen for James, the ball-handler, before reversing course and setting the screen on Korver's man. That half-step of space is often all it takes for Korver to get a clean look at the basket, and as his 46.2 percent shooting from 3-point range in these playoffs attest, an open shot is a made shot.
Korver and Love have combined for 50 of Cleveland's 119 3-pointers this postseason. The beauty of this play for Cleveland is even if it is defended correctly via switching or fighting through the screen, James now has a 1-on-1 against his defender, usually in the middle of the court or at a 45-degree angle to the basket on the wing depending on where the play starts, and that results in a high probability of points as much as Korver or Love getting off a clean look from beyond the arc.
Here's the thing about this play, though. Every team has it, with each adding their own unique wrinkle to it based on personnel and how an opposing defense responds to it. Boston will just as likely use this play on Cleveland, who will defend it differently than the Celtics in that the Cavaliers will likely "blitz" the dribbler by sending an aggressive double team.
The Celtics saw this much of the first round against Milwaukee, and one of their advantages in not having a go-to scorer is their ball movement offensively can result in any one of four players lining up an open shot if the rotations are right. The game of cat-and-mouse that will be built off this one particular play will be a basketball nerd's delight.
Question 4 - Can Terry Rozier end his struggles on the road in the playoffs?
This may be the most important question in determining if the Celtics reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010. Rozier has done an incredible job filling the void left by Irving and has averaged 16.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists in 28 games as a starter when including the playoffs.
In that 28-game sample size, Rozier also has a far better assists-to-turnover ratio (3.60 compared to Irving's season mark of 2.19), and his 3-point shooting percentage of 39.2 is close to Irving's season mark of 40.8 percent.
But Rozier's home and road splits in terms of scoring and 3-point shooting in the playoffs have been staggering. In Boston's seven home games, all Celtics wins, he has averaged 22.0 points, 6.0 assists and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 50.9 percent (28 for 55) from 3-point range and compiling a 5.25 assists-to-turnover ratio.
In their five road games, in which Boston have lost four, Rozier has averaged 12.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists while shooting 24.4 percent from beyond the arc (10 for 41) with a 3.38 assists-to-turnover ratio. He has yet to score 20 points in a road playoff game and also has shot better than 40 percent just once without cracking the 50-percent mark.
TL;DR version, Rozier has to have one or maybe two games in Cleveland like he usually has in Boston if the Celtics are to win this series.
Question 5 - Is this the series where Tyronn Lue gets his coaching due?
Many people, this space included, have gone ga-ga over Stevens' plays coming out of a timeout. Much praise has been given, and rightly so, as Stevens is now using a starting lineup that includes players six and seven in their rotation since both Hayward and Irving are out, and sometimes in this postseason Stevens has needed players eight, nine and ten as he wrings out precious minutes of games while working with a talent deficiency.
While people have taken notice of the things Stevens has done, contrast that with the average response in assessing Cavaliers counterpart Tyronn Lue. As coach of the team with the world's greatest basketball player, it is easy to dismiss Lue as someone who simply rolls out the ball out to the court and lets James make all the decisions. In fairness to James, sometimes he does exactly that when he decides he must take a game over for the greater good of getting a Cleveland victory.
Over the years, though, Lue has shown himself fairly shrewd in his own right. He made masterstrokes in the series against Toronto by unleashing Love in different facets of his game. When the Raptors went small against Love, Lue threw him into the low post and watched him punish all the Lilliputians. When the Raptors tried to use seven-footers Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas as defenders on the pick-and-pop play with James, Lue had his two stars use their quickness on the edge to make life miserable for the pair, to the point where Raptors coach Dwane Casey was forced to bench Ibaka.
As a former point guard, Lue has a strong sense of feel for the game and its tempo. Cleveland averaged just 94.9 points in their series versus Indiana in a grind house series before being free to run against Toronto, who admittedly play at a faster pace than the Pacers. Still, the Cavaliers averaged 118.5 points in their second-round sweep.
There's more to Cleveland than just James turning on a switch, and underestimating Lue in this series is a huge risk.
One good thing for the Celtics is the league not announcing its MVP winner until after the NBA Finals because one can only imagine how quietly aggravated James will be when James Harden wins the award mainly because Harden, who has excellent numbers in aiding his cause, is not LeBron James.
But back to the actual series. Cleveland won two of the three regular-season games between the teams, but two of them were played before the Cavaliers overhauled their roster in early February, and the Celtics played all three with Irving. So it is difficult to glean any real trends the teams may have against each other.
If there are two worries for the Celtics, it is first that James is playing at such a preposterous level it may continue in this series but also that this idea of "next man up" that has served Boston so well throughout these 94 games may finally hit a wall against a Cavaliers team built and then re-built specifically to win postseason series.
Even with home-court advantage, the Celtics are all but certain to need at least one victory on the road because it is difficult to envision them winning all four games at home if needed. Eliminating the 76ers in five games considering the Cavaliers sweep was vital considering it also gave second-year guard Jaylen Brown valuable time to heal his strained hamstring and potentially move back into the starting lineup for this series.
The good thing for Boston is they have a flexible and interchangeable roster where players can guard multiple positions. Morris and Baynes will also have to use all or most of their 12 personal fouls to help ease some defensive pressure on Horford, who will have to chase Love on the perimeter and serve as the primary screener offensively for Rozier on offense.
The Celtics also may be able to free up Tatum offensively when Korver is in the game by using him in tandem with Brown. That would create a pick-your-poison for the Cavaliers in having James guard the other and risking the quickness of either Boston player exploiting Korver defensively.
Cleveland did not do anything well defensively in their second-round sweep of Toronto, but their offense was so efficient it limited the Raptors' fast-break opportunities. Toronto had just 29 points off Cleveland turnovers and 31 points in transition in the four games, with the averages of 7.3 and 7.8 points in those categories far below the season marks of 11.3 and 16.3 points per game respectively allowed by the Cavaliers.
And while various statistics can be broken down to the nth degree, it will always come back to James. That talk of fatigue after that first-round series against Indiana quickly dissipated after he averaged 34.0 points, 11.3 assists and 8.3 rebounds in sweeping Toronto, more so after that buzzer-beater to win Game 3 and also after he committed just eight turnovers while averaging almost 42 minutes.
The narrative again changed from how much does James have left to how can the Celtics stop him? It will take everyone, and even then, it likely will not be enough.
Get ready for the fourth chapter of Warriors-Cavaliers because it will be CAVALIERS IN SIX.
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