By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- When the 2017-18 NBA season tipped off with the Celtics taking on the Cavaliers, many predicted the two teams would meet again in May for a trip to the NBA Finals.
While the Boston-Cleveland Eastern Conference finals we were expecting has arrived, it's not quite how we drew it up back in mid-October. There will be no Kyrie Irving vs. LeBron James, no Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder looking to burn their former team. Both teams have had to fight through interesting (and occasionally tumultuous) regular seasons and hard-fought playoff matchups to get to where they are, and for the second straight season, will duke it out for the chance to play for a Larry O'Brien trophy.
The Cavaliers went through a major makeover at the trade deadline, shipping nearly half of their team out of town. IT, Crowder and Dwyane Wade were all sent elsewhere, while the Cavs brought in George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to upgrade their talent around LeBron. Those newcomers have had mixed success in Cleveland, but it hasn't really matter, as James has been playing out of his mind. After leading the Cavs to a seven-game victory over the Indiana Pacers in the first round, James took his game to a whole new level in a four-game sweep of the top-seeded Raptors.
Meanwhile, the Celtics continue to prove their doubters wrong. They're back in the conference finals after a hard-fought seven-game series against the Bucks and a five-game schooling of the 76ers. It's an incredible accomplishment given the injuries suffered along the way, plus the fact Brad Stevens has only four players from last year's Celtics squad that made it to the East finals. With Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier all playing the best basketball of their careers, there is good reason to believe that this year's Celtics will fare much better than last year's team did against the Cavaliers.
Does that mean the Celtics are going to dethrone LeBron and Co. as the kings of the East? Probably not. Despite all their struggles and perceived turmoil, the Cavaliers still have the best player on the planet and he's playing like an absolute behemoth. It's terrifying to say, but LeBron could be playing the best basketball of his career at the moment.
But the Celtics are a tough and gritty bunch who have stood up to every challenge over the last seven months. With their mix of young stars, some savvy veterans and incredible coaching, they're ready to prove their doubters wrong once again.
"We'd rather y'all count us out," Rozier said on Friday. "We don't want anybody on our side now. We're doing good and we play better when our back is against the wall."
Here's what we'll be watching for when the Celtics and Cavaliers tip-off on Sunday afternoon:
Stopping Everyone Else
The Celtics are not going to stop LeBron. No team can stop LeBron. But everyone else on the Cavaliers? That's a different and far-less complicated endeavor.
After LeBron's 34.3 points per game, there's a cavernous dip in Cleveland's offense. Kevin Love is second on the team with a respectable 14.3 points per game. After that, there's Kyle Korver (10.5), J.R. Smith (10.0), and George Hill (9.8). And for the fun of it, we'll go down one more notch and let you know Jeff Green is averaging eight points per game. Yes, that Jeff Green. Go ahead, enjoy a nice little snicker.
LeBron is going to get his. He's going to score. He's going to pull down rebounds. He's going to dish to teammates. He's going to be allowed to walk and dance and prance and stride with the basketball. Because he's LeBron James. But he's at his finest when Love, Smith, Kyle Korver and Cleveland's other shooters are hitting their open looks, spacing the floor for LeBron to bulldoze wherever the heck he wants. After holding the 76ers to just 31 percent shooting from beyond the arc, the Celtics are again going to have to play stellar perimeter defense again against the Cavs.
Taking Love out of the equation will be a big part of the series for the Celtics, and we're not talking about a Kelly Olynyk shoulder tug. If Love struggles, LeBron will likely point it out a dozen times. If Love struggles, LeBron has to do more. If Love struggles, the Celtics have shot at taking this series.
Who Defends LeBron?
Just because they can't stop LeBron doesn't mean the Celtics won't commit a boatload of attention to him. Brad Stevens will likely throw a bevvy of defenders the King's way in hopes of sacking his kingdom.
A rookie Jaylen Brown got some looks on LeBron last postseason, and that didn't really go too well. But Brown is a year older and wiser, and the challenge is his once again this postseason.
"Watching the other two series, there was a little bit of confusion between Toronto and Indiana. You've gotta (know) what you want to do every time down the floor," Brown said of defending LeBron on Friday.
He won't be alone in this fight. Jayson Tatum could potentially provide some help and Marcus Smart is also willing to lend a hand, because he loves to irritate anyone on the floor who isn't in a Celtics uniform.
And if none of that works, the Celtics have some other bigger gentlemen to throw LeBron's way in Marcus Morris and Semi Ojeleye. Morris has had success limiting LeBron during his career, and that may even get him into the starting lineup this series. He's not hitting shots at the moment, so some strong D on James would be a nice trade-off. Ojeleye was a huge X-factor in the first round against Giannia Antetokounmpo, and he could be asked to muscle up against LeBron when others need a rest. And when LeBron drives, expect Aron Bayes to be at the rim waiting for him. That will likely lead to Baynes being on the wrong side of Top 10 appearances and a few more posterizing jams, but the Aussie won't care as long as he's making James work for those highlights.
LeBron looks like an unstoppable force at the moment, but the Celtics have a good enough cast of characters to make his life at least a little bit more difficult. If they can do that, and make him force feed his merry men, their odds improve greatly.
An Even Bigger Stage For Tatum To Shine
The Celtics' rookie is the real deal. Tatum has scored 20+ points in seven straight games, proving no moment is too big for him. He scored 10 points in the fourth quarter of Game 5 against the 76ers, and was Boston's best offensive player throughout that series. Tatum is already a legit scorer in this league at the age of 20 and his emergence throughout the year has made Danny Ainge look like a genius (once again) for his pre-draft swap of the No. 1 overall pick.
But as phenomenal as Tatum is playing right now, he's about to face his toughest test yet. In all likelihood, Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue (who is actually Tatum's cousin) will put LeBron on the rookie in hopes of keeping him from going off on offense. While the Cavaliers aren't a great defensive team collectively, Playoff LeBron has the ability to shut down his opposition. Tatum has shown that he possess an array of offensive moves, but it may be tough for him to get going if James is draped all over him throughout the series.
Tatum shot a ridiculous 53 percent against Philadelphia and is hitting 46 percent of his shots this postseason (though just 31 percent from three-point range). Those numbers will likely take a dip against the Cavs. But if he can continue to be an offensive force, then the Celtics will be in great shape.
Al Needs To Be Great
Al Horford has been anything but average this postseason, shutting up most of his haters with some of his most physical play in a Boston uniform. He's averaging 17 points per game, the highest he's ever averaged in his 10 postseason appearances, and on a team made up of youngsters, Horford is the glue guy. He's going to have to continue to be great if the Celtics want to advance to the NBA Finals.
Unfortunately, he's had zero success against teams that employ LeBron James in the playoffs. Horford and James have met in 16 postseason games, and LeBron's team has won all but one of them. While it's not always the best representation of a player's contributions, Horford is sporting a minus-236 in those 16 matchups. Woof.
But Horford's main concern won't be LeBron; it will be Kevin Love. It will be imperative for Horford to win his matchup on both ends of the floor, because it could very well be the deciding factor in the series. Love averaged 20.5 points per game against Toronto, hitting 47 percent from the floor. He's shooting fewer threes than he did last postseason and attacking the basket more, looking more like the player he was in Minnesota than the one LeBron occasionally tosses under a bus. He had some monster performances against Boston last postseason, averaging 22.6 points and 12.4 rebounds over the five-game set. If he is hitting his threes and attacking the basket, Cleveland becomes an even scarier opponent.
If Love is able to continue his hot streak, the Celtics' incredible season will come to an end. If Horford can keep playing his all-around game, limiting Love while also contributing on offense, it could give Boston the advantage.
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