Why the Cleveland Cavaliers should want to play the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals
By Chris Fedor, cleveland.com
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Throughout the regular season the Cleveland Cavaliers prioritized health and rest over getting the Eastern Conference's top spot.
Given their playoff success on the road over the past few years, they didn't feel home-court advantage was necessary. Internally, they also didn't believe the Boston Celtics, No. 1 in the East, were even going to make the conference finals. If they did, it wasn't going to be a problematic matchup, thinking the most recent meeting between the two teams was foreshadowing a potential best-of-seven series.
If Boston advances, it would be a welcome sight for the Cavaliers, likely paving the way for another short series, more rest and extra time to prepare before the NBA Finals.
Prior to the 2016 NBA Playoffs, Celtics swingman Jae Crowder was asked about the team lacking a star, responding with what turned out to be the playoff mantra that year: "We're one superstar."
He was alluding to the team-first approach, with many guys playing a role in Boston's success. It was before Isaiah Thomas emerged as one the game's premier point guards and an outside MVP candidate. The Celtics have found their star. But this is the time of year where multiple scoring options are required, which is why Boston was linked to Jimmy Butler and Paul George in trade rumblings.
Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue has made it clear that his defensive plan centers on trying to take away what the opponent does best, wanting to key in on the most important player and force others to make things happen.
That's easier said than done, of course. But the challenge becomes easier when there's only one star to smother, especially when he stands 5-foot-9.
In the first round, the Cavs used a variety of defenses, including the blitz, to try to contain George. The Pacers didn't have enough consistent offensive options aside from him. That lack of weaponry kept Indiana from keeping up with Cleveland. Something similar happened in the semifinals against the Raptors, as the Cavs made a concerted effort to pester DeMar DeRozan, picking up the intensity even more when Kyle Lowry went down with an ankle injury.
That trapping strategy, sending multiple defenders at DeRozan, kept him from getting into a rhythm. It forced P.J. Tucker, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas and others to be playmakers and scorers. Despite giving up numerous open looks, the Cavs' strategy ultimately worked because they took the one player at the top of the scouting report out of the series.
The result: a Cleveland sweep.
If the Cavs play the Celtics, Thomas would be the primary focus and the Cavs have already shown they're at their best when using the blitzing strategy, activating the aggressive defense and allowing LeBron James to roam.
It's the tactic Cleveland used late in the regular season against the Celtics and the diminuitive Thomas wasn't able to cope with the pressure. Boston's supporting cast came up short as well. The series would be about Avery Bradley, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk or Crowder making shots.
That's the only way to burn the Cavs. Through 10 postseason games, Thomas is averaging 25.6 points. No one else on the roster is averaging better than 15.5.
A one-man-offense doesn't stand a chance.
Fueling the break
The Cavs are at their best when they get out in transition. James, an unstoppable one-man fast break, can either get all the way to the basket or create open looks for the abundance of shooters surrounding him. Kyrie Irving is also at his best playing fast, not having to work against a set defense in half-court situations.
The best way for the Cavs to get out and run is by forcing turnovers. That's been an issue at times throughout the season, but with their length, speed, athleticism and versatility, they have picked it up during the playoffs, making opponents pay for miscues.
During Sunday's series finale, the Cavs scored 15 points off 12 Toronto turnovers.
So what's this have to do with the Celtics? Well, they rank 11th this postseason in turnovers, averaging 13.7 per game.
Think about all the possible transition opportunities.
This is the time of year when weaknesses get highlighted.
After ranking 26th in rebounding, the Celtics are last among all teams remaining. Unable to finish defensive possessions, the Celtics allow 12.5 offensive rebounds per game. Chicago's Robin Lopez had his way on the boards before the Bulls were eliminated. Marcin Gortat has been a tough handle for Boston's bigs.
A frontline featuring Tristan Thompson, the league's best offensive rebounder, Kevin Love and James would prey on the Celtics.
Thompson, who has struggled with Gortat in the past, would instead have a matchup against Horford, a player Thomspon has had success against in the past when Horford was with the Hawks. Amir Johnson's offensive struggles could keep him off the floor. Olynyk doesn't have much of a chance underneath, more of a finesse big man who likes to hover around the 3-point line.
Given Boston's rebounding issues, it would also have a hard time downsizing to compete with the Cavs' small-ball lineup, a must for any team that has visions of winning a playoff series. Staying big would help control the glass, but it would also lead to plenty of open looks from the outside. The Cavs are shooting 43 percent from 3-point range and hitting a postseason-high 14.4 bombs per game.
Stay big and give up 3's or go small and become vulnerable on the boards?
Thomas is a defensive liability, one whose weaknesses can be exposed against a smart, disciplined offense that will attack mismatches.
The Cavs showed that at times during the first round against Indiana. When Lance Stephenson was stuck defending Love in the post, the Cavs went right to their third All-Star and he repeatedly delivered. Cleveland also tried taking C.J. Miles out of the series by getting him in foul trouble, attacking him with James or others in switching situations.
Who will Thomas guard in the series? Can the Celtics afford to "hide" him on J.R. Smith, who will run the diminutive point guard through a series of screens and possibly zap his energy on the offensive end? Would the Celtics really think about using Thomas against Irving, a dribbling wizard and one of the best pure scorers at the position? That's unlikely, especially given Bradley's defensive reputation.
More than likely, Thomas will be getting help from his teammates because there's no player he can match. But helping against Cleveland is self-destructive. That's when the 3's start raining down.
Then comes the other question that every team needs to ask: Who guards James?
Some teams -- Warriors, Rockets and Spurs -- have better answers. But James has elevated his game in the postseason, playing the most complete basketball of his career, averaging 34.4 points while shooting 55.7 percent from the field and 46.8 from 3-point range.
Protecting the paint
Without a true rim protector, the Celtics are allowing 47.2 points in the paint -- the most of any playoff team remaining. That would be a problem against James, who is shooting 65.9 percent in the paint this postseason. Irving, meanwhile, is shooting 49 percent in the lane.
In a potential showdown against Washington, the Wizards would have Gortat manning the middle, capable of swatting shots or altering off-the-dribble attacks.
The only real downside to playing against the Celtics is the possibility of Olynyk, who is viewed in a negative light by many Cavaliers, getting involved in another altercation that impacts the next round. No one has forgotten what happened to Love two years ago.