(Photo Credit: USA Today Sports via Reuters/David Richard)
Only Frank Ramsey, Tom Heinsohn and Bill Russell, all members of the Boston Celtics dynasty during the 1950s and 1960s have made more consecutive NBA Finals appearances than LeBron James, who is looking to make his eighth straight trip to the league’s showcase event.
“I haven’t reflected on it,” James told ESPN on Friday. “But I do know that this is my eighth straight conference finals, and I have an opportunity to play for a championship if I’m able to be successful in this conference finals, so I don’t take that for granted.”
He has the Cavaliers on the cusp of their fourth Eastern Conference title in a row, and this may be arguably his most impressive postseason to date in his storied career. James enters this contest averaging 34.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 9.0 assists while shooting 55.3 percent in 11 playoff games with two triple-doubles and eight double-doubles to go with four 40-point efforts and a pair of buzzer-beaters.
Cleveland (50-32), who finished fourth in the East, followed up their seven-game grinder of a series versus Indiana in the first round by sweeping top-seeded Toronto in the conference semifinals. James totaled 34.0 points, 11.3 assists and 8.3 rebounds against the Raptors, again shooting 55.3 percent, as the Cavaliers averaged 118.5 points while shooting 41.1 percent from 3-point range and 51.6 percent overall.
Boston (55-27) returned to the Eastern Conference final for the second straight year, outlasting the Milwaukee Bucks in seven games before battling past the Philadelphia 76ers in five games in the second round. The Celtics have been spectacular at home in the postseason, winning all seven of their games while averaging 110.1 points and going 4-0 in games decided by five or fewer points.
And they have done it without their top two offseason acquisitions, Gordon Hayward and James’ former teammate Kyrie Irving. Hayward was lost for the season after just five minutes into Boston’s first game due to a gruesome ankle injury, while Irving, who averaged 24.4 points and 5.1 rebounds, was shut down in late March for season-ending knee surgery.
James and the Cavaliers have eliminated the Celtics twice in the last three postseasons, sweeping them in the first round in 2015 before taking them out in five games in last year’s conference finals. That has resulted in a collective chip on Boston’s shoulder they are just daring Cleveland to knock off one more time.
“We knew from the beginning we’ve got each other,” Terry Rozier told Masslive.com. “We weren’t gonna lay down for nobody no matter who was counting us out. We weren’t going to just let the teams come in and punk us. We were the No. 2 seed for a reason. With injuries, without, we were the No. 2 seed, so obviously we were doing something great all season.
“We’d rather y’all count us out. We don’t want anybody on our side now. We’re doing good and we play better when our back is against the wall.”
The best-of-seven series will stay in Boston for Game 2 on Tuesday night.
Three keys to the game
Get to 100, win on the road - Outside James, Cleveland's offense has run hot and cold in the playoffs outside Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavaliers averaged 93.7 points in their three games at Indiana in the first round, losing the two contests they failed to reach the century mark.
It was a different story at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, where Cleveland rolled up 241 points in winning Games 1 and 2, shooting 41.0 percent (25 for 61) from 3-point range and 49.5 percent overall. The Cavaliers had 50 assists and only nine turnovers, which helped them amass a 34-8 edge in points off turnovers in the two victories.
Rozier likes home cooking - Rozier has been all-world at TD North Garden this postseason filling the void created by Irving's departure. He has averaged 22.0 points, 6.0 assists and 5.3 rebounds in Boston's seven home games, all wins, while connecting on 50.9 percent (28 for 55) of his 3-point shots.
Rozier also has a 5.25 assists-to-turnover ratio in those games, committing just eight turnovers in 260 minutes and has not had more than two turnovers in any home playoff game.
Your statistical reminder LeBron James is REALLY GOOD at playoff basketball - Even if this series ends in a sweep, James will probably pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most field goals in postseason history. James has 2,322 baskets in 228 playoff games, while Abdul-Jabbar totaled 2,356 in 237, though James has also taken 327 more shots. That is a fair trade-off considering James has not played with Hall of Fame caliber players like Magic Johnson and James Worthy.
James is four 3-pointers shy of 350 in the postseason as he closes in on Ray Allen's all-time mark of 385. He needs 17 offensive rebounds to move into the top 20 all-time and 38 total rebounds to pass Karl Malone for sixth on the all-time list. James also needs six blocks to crack the top 15 all-time in the playoffs.
Matchup to watch
SF LeBron James vs SF Jayson Tatum - There are intriguing matchups across the board for these teams, but this one sticks out because the Celtics rookie forward has been the breakout player of this postseason, more so than his teammate Rozier.
Jayson Tatum has learned on the job all season after being the No. 3 overall pick, stepping into the small forward spot when Hayward went down in the season opener, and he has raised his game to another level in the playoffs by setting a Celtics rookie postseason record with seven consecutive 20-point games.
But Tatum has not faced a defender on the level of James in the playoffs. He averaged 15.4 points in the first round versus Milwaukee, who struggled all season defensively, before lifting that number to 23.6 per contest against Philadelphia.
While the 76ers were lauded as a solid defensive unit, Celtics coach Brad Stevens repeatedly created matchups in that series where Tatum could thrive as he often took J. J. Redick on the bounce and used his offensive versatility against Robert Covington.
James will not duck this defensive assignment though it will be worth watching to see if he takes it on full-time. Tatum averaged 12.7 points in the three regular-season games between the teams but also shot just 40.5 percent (15 for 37).
How Stevens goes about creating mismatches and shots for his star rookie could go a long way in determining Boston's chances.
Cleveland Cavaliers projected starting lineup
PG - George Hill | SG - Kyle Korver | C - Kevin Love | SF - J. R. Smith | PF - LeBron James
Boston Celtics projected starting lineup
PG - Terry Rozier | SG - Jaylen Brown | C - Aron Baynes | SF - Jayson Tatum | PF - Al Horford
James' numbers for this postseason have already been stated. In the event that did not convince you he deserves a spot in your DFS lineup, consider he has averaged 28.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 6.2 assists in ten games over his last two playoff series against Boston. His overall playoff numbers in 34 games versus the Celtics are 28.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game along with averages of 1.91 steals and 1.38 blocks.
Kevin Love enjoyed a resurgence in the second round as he closed it with three straight double-doubles and averaged 20.5 points and 11.5 rebounds versus Toronto. Still playing out of position as an undersized center, he has averaged 14.7 points and 10.1 rebounds while shooting 38.5 percent (20 for 52) from 3-point range. In the last two postseason series against Boston, Love averaged 18.9 points and 10.0 rebounds while carrying a streak of five double-doubles into this contest.
Jaylen Brown showed his hamstring is fairly close to 100 percent after scoring 24 points in Boston's closeout game versus Philadelphia and making ten of 13 shots. The second-year guard has averaged 16.9 points while shooting 41.5 percent from beyond the arc in this postseason.
Brown will be eager to build on his sixth man role from last year's playoff series versus Cleveland in which he averaged 9.0 points while shooting 58.6 percent (17 for 29).
Veteran forward Al Horford has been everything the Celtics have needed around their young nucleus, and that is mainly consistent. He has reached double figures in points in all 12 games this postseason, averaging 17.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 3.3 assists while shooting a torrid 57.8 percent.
Facing the Cavaliers in the playoffs, though, has been a carnival of horrors for Horford, who has just one win in 16 career games against them. He has averaged only 10.9 points and 4.3 rebounds in those games and was limited to 12.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game in last year's conference finals.
Call it the LeBron factor or whatever you would like, but the betting line has swung three points in Cleveland's favor since it opened as the Cavaliers went from 1.5-point underdogs to 1.5-point favorites for this series opener.
The Cavaliers have covered in five of their last six visits to Boston and are looking to further a trend in which the road teams have gone 15-5-1 in the last 21 meetings between the teams. Cleveland are also 8-2 versus the number in their last ten matchups with Atlantic Division opponents and 6-2 in their last eight road games.
The Cavs are also 5-2 in their last seven conference final games and 5-2 in their last seven on the road versus teams with a winning home record.
Boston have been good to bettors at home, covering in 11 of their last 12 games there against opponents with a winning road record. Boston are also 13-3 against the spread in their last 16 home games, 19-7 in their last 26 versus conference rivals and 23-9 in their last 32 contests overall.
The over/under has slipped 1.5 points to 204 since its open, and the under has been the strong play of late as it has hit in eight of the last 11 matchups between the teams. Individually, however, the over has trended for both teams.
The over is 5-1 in Cleveland's last six games, 5-2 in their last seven road games and 10-4 in the last 14 against Atlantic Division rivals.
The over has also delivered a 7-2 mark in Boston's last nine against Central Division teams, gone 12-4 in their last 16 overall and 16-5 in the Celtics' last 21 contests at TD North Garden.
Well, here we are again, Boston and Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals. It is easy to look at this series on the surface and say it is missing luster because Irving is not there to prevent James from making an eighth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, but the truth is both teams have reinvented themselves out of necessity to make a compelling series that will result in one of them winning the conference title.
Cleveland re-invented themselves twice this season, once after dealing Irving to the Celtics and again at the trade deadline when they realized James could not co-exist offensively with Isaiah Thomas, whom they got from the Celtics in the Irving deal.
Given the moves they made in bringing in George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, the Cavaliers essentially traded Irving to the Celtics for a lottery pick after you strip away the players they moved at the trade deadline.
Boston have looked mostly from within overcoming the injuries to Hayward and Irving, with the biggest change bringing in veteran center Greg Monroe. It is uncertain how much of a role Monroe could have in this series, but given the village it will take to guard James, it would not be surprising to see him get spot minutes if Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris get into foul trouble.
Given that both teams are well-rested for this contest, it will probably be a lengthy feeling-out process as Celtics coach Brad Stevens and Cavaliers counterpart Tyronn Lue get a feel of both their teams and what their opponents are running offensively. Thus, it will once more come down to James, and arguably as simple as his shooting percentage.
If he makes 50 percent or better of his shots, it is hard to see the Cavaliers losing. If the Celtics can make life difficult for him and close out Cleveland's perimeter shooters, they stand a good chance of winning. It's James' world and we live in it until the Celtics can prove otherwise. Look for Cleveland to take away home-court advantage by opening this series with a 102-96 victory.
The game will be televised nationally on ABC and nationally in Canada on SportsNet One. Tip-off time is 3:30 pm EDT.
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