No, this is NOT a rerun. Yes, we’ve seen it many times before: LeBron James leads his Cleveland Cavaliers (or Miami Heat) into a playoff battle versus the Boston Celtics. If you’re scoring at home (I am!), this is the seventh time the Celtics will tangle with the King in the NBA Playoffs since 2008, including three of the past four years. As a franchise, the Celtics will attempt to end a four-series losing streak vs. LeBron come Sunday.
Let’s get this out of the way first: This is NOT last year.
Time and time again over the past two months, the Celtics have been counted out. I admit that I drank that Kool-Aid, albeit briefly. Once it became clear that the Celtics would NOT have to face both Toronto AND Cleveland, I began to believe. The playoffs are a funny animal. Often times, a seven game series is seen as something of a shortcoming for certain teams. Too much was made of the Celtics’ difficulty in dispatching Milwaukee in the opening round. The fact is, the Bucks are a very talented team that matches up well with the Celtics. Milwaukee had the clear best player in the series. Perhaps most importantly, many of these baby Celtics needed to experience playoff intensity before really thriving. Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum got their sea legs in Round 1. Yes, Rozier and Brown played last year. But that was more of an apprenticeship, if you will. Being relied upon as a starter in the playoffs is a totally different thing for a young player.
For reasons I will never understand, the Cs were PROHIBITIVE underdogs to Philly. That seemed odd going in given inexperience is rarely rewarded in the NBA Playoffs and the 6ers best players had never been this far. The Celtics hushed The Process mainly because they match up really well with Philly. The experience factor also proved key. However, this group had a HUGE chip on its shoulder going into this series. Why were the 6ers favored so heavily when the Celtics dominated them during the year (I saw a preseason and regular season game versus Philly this year, the Celtics were clearly better.)? Why was Philly being anointed the “team of the future” over the Celtics? If the 6ers very young star duo was capable of leading Philly to the Finals (a popular, albeit comical opinion from certain media types. I’m talking to you Stephen A. Smith.), why was youth going to be an issue for the Celtics’ talented youngsters? Maybe they’ll never admit it…but this team ate up the disrespect tossed its way in eliminating Philly. It took Philly three games to start punching back. Too little, too late.
Now it’s on to Cleveland. No one thinks they can win this series, and they might not. But I’m here to remind you of a few key facts if you’re thinking it’s going to be an easy series for Cleveland. First, Kyrie Irving not playing is MUCH more of an issue for Cleveland than the Celtics. Did you see him eviscerate poor Avery Bradley last year? NOBODY does that to AB. Yes, his presence would up the Celtics ceiling significantly. Good thing Rozier is here. The Cavs do not have that type of talent in their backcourt now. Second, Tristan Thompson just man handled the Celtics frontcourt the past couple years. Now Aaron Baynes is here. Good luck pushing him around for rebounds. Third, the Celtics have more BIG bodies to throw at LeBron this time around. Besides Brown and Smart (both now experienced in dealing with James), Stevens can also lean on Marcus Morris and Semi Ojelye. Lastly, the Celtics have an ENORMOUS edge defensively in this series. This Cavs team is not in the Celtics league in that area.
Expect Stevens to deploy the same strategy on James that he used so effectively on Joel Embid. He will not want the Celtics to help on James drives and post ups in hopes of limiting three-point looks from the Cavs’ role players. Part of the reason the strategy was so brilliant versus Philly was that Embid was just plain out of shape having missed significant time before the playoffs. James will not get worn out by having to go for 40+ points. We’ve seen him do it so many times. They need to be physical with him, make him work and hammer him coming through the paint on finishes. Again, they are far better equipped to do that this time around. The fact that they have absolutely nothing to lose in this series also bodes well. All the pressure is on Cleveland. Every ounce. James’ impending free agent status only adds to the pressure for Cleveland.
Can the Celtics win this series? They can with a little luck. Maybe James gets into some fluke foul trouble one game. Maybe he just stinks another night. It’s possible the Celtics light up the Cavs with hot shooting for another. Do not count this team out. It IS possible that LeBron has FINALLY reached that point where he actually DOES get winded. It’s MORE than possible that Rozier, Brown and Tatum end up as star players in this league. If so, the turning point HAS to happen at some point. It’s possible that we’re seeing it before our very eyes here. Al Horford should be highly motivated after being badly outplayed by Kevin Love last year. So go ahead, count this team out if you must. Just don’t be shocked if they do the impossible. The pieces are there. BELIEVE!