Remember when the Kyrie Irving trade went down in August? Our first thought was “Man, the East Finals are really gonna be something.”
Somehow, after Gordon Hayward snapped his ankle five minutes into opening night, after Cleveland blew up their whole team at the trade deadline, which included shipping out the No.2 asset they received from Boston in the Kyrie trade, and after watching that same Kyrie Irving guy who we’ve already mentioned three times go down with a season-ending knee injury, we’re here. We still got the Cavaliers and Celtics in the East Finals. Are you sure you want to leave this conference, LeBron?
All that being said, it hasn’t been easy for LeBron James. The Pacers took Cleveland to seven games in round one, thanks to the Cavs having no one to slow down Victor Olidipo and having no defensive effort whatsoever. LeBron took on the ultimate workload, putting up 40 point triple doubles like it was nothing. He hit one of the most cold-blooded game-winners I’ve ever seen against Indiana, and then somehow topped it against Toronto when he decided to take a one legged floater from the left side of the court that didn’t even hit the white square on the backboard. Seriously, if the basketball doesn’t hit that exact spot on the glass, it tips the front of the rim and doesn’t go in.
The LeBron impact has wrecked two teams this postseason, one of which came oh-s0-close and one of which completed combusted, in the least surprising twist of the playoffs. So can Brad Stevens and Boston be the first team to overcome it?
Eastern Conference Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Boston Celtics
Boston’s biggest key coming into these playoffs was to get unexpected, large offensive contributions. So far, that’s happened. Terry Rozier has been phenomenal scoring the basketball. Jayson Tatum hasn’t played like a rookie. Jaylen Brown has hit his ceiling, and can give the Celtics five threes in a game if they need it. Against certain matchups, Al Horford can bang down low and get easy buckets.
Nothing is preventing that from happening in this series. The Cavaliers defense has slightly improved, but it’s still the same group that finished in the bottom five in defensive rating this season, and remains undoubtedly the worst group left in the playoffs. The sweep of Toronto wasn’t really due to a good defensive performance out of the Cavs. It was horrible play down the stretch by Toronto and a complete incompetence for doing anything to slow down LeBron.
We may not be able to blame Toronto for that second part though. LeBron is at least the 3rd greatest player of all-time now. What are you supposed to do? Toronto’s best option was a rookie!
The argument for Boston in the series is this: The Cavs’ defense is bad enough to allow these sporadic, unexpected offensive outputs from guys we just can’t believe are doing this a playoff series while the Celtics have dudes to throw at LeBron and possessed the best defensive rating in the league this season. Makes sense, right?
But we’re at the point with LeBron where “having dudes to throw at him” just isn’t enough. Nobody, nobody, is slowing that dude down right now. The level LeBron is currently playing is 2nd to only that crazy winning streak he had in Miami. That’s it. LeBron is 33, in his 15th season, and is having possibly the 2nd best stretch of his career.
Good luck Boston. Marcus Morris is certainly in for a wake-up call. Jaylen Brown actually did quite a nice job on LeBron in very few possessions in last year’s East Finals, but LeBron wasn’t playing like this and could defer to Kyrie for offense. Jayson Tatum has gotten better defensively throughout the year, but isn’t nearly competent enough to take LeBron every possession.
Boston has the option to go big against LeBron. Guys like Semi Ojeyele and Guerschon Yabusele have insane athleticism for their size. The Celtics also switched Al Hoford onto Ben Simmons in the Sixers series, which made Simmons hesitant to drive.
James isn’t going to be as reluctant as Simmons though, and can blow by Ojeyele, Yabusele and Horford. Perhaps the constant switching can throw him off a bit; Boston should switch to get fresh legs on LeBron every possession. LeBron and the Cavs hasn’t faced this type of depth at the wing position in these playoffs yet.
It’s still not going to matter. You can’t stop, slow down or even somewhat limit LeBron. There’s two guys in the league who have shown the capability to do that: Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. Boston doesn’t have either of them.
If B0ston wins this series, it’s going to be due to an amazing defensive display by the guys I listed above. Jaylen Brown will have to break out as one of the league’s three best perimeter defenders. Tatum’s gonna have to stay focused. Marcus Morris will somehow have his words backed up.
It just feels too unlikely. Boston will be able to match Cleveland offensively; their lineup creativity can cut, post-up and score one-on-one against the Cavs at any time. Rozier isn’t Olidipo, but Cleveland proved in the Indiana series they have no one to contain a crafty guard who can get to the rim.
I worry about Boston in close games though; I don’t trust Rozier’s and Marcus Smart’s antics down the stretch. With LeBron on the other side, he’ll make you pay. You just can’t have a bad possession late.
This series is not a wash for the Celtics. They’ll get the Jaylen Brown 25 point game, the You’re Not Stopping Jayson Tatum game, and possibly a We’re Coming Back From Down 20 game. Their defense will make LeBron do everything, which will probably still be enough for Cleveland in the end.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 7