LeBron James is leading the Cleveland Cavaliers back to the postseason, where a familiar foe awaits.
The Boston Celtics and Cavs squared off in the playoffs twice during James' first tenure in Cleveland. The four-time MVP also met up with Boston during his first two postseason runs with the Miami Heat.
Boston ended the Cavaliers' playoff hopes in 2008 and 2010, the second matchup encouraging James to head south for four years.
Of course, this is a dramatically different Celtics team.
While the 53-29, No. 2-seeded Cavaliers enter as overwhelming favorites against the 40-42, No. 7-seeded Celtics, one can't help but respect what Boston has accomplished this season. It traded its best player (Rajon Rondo) and leading scorer (Jeff Green), only to improve as the season went along. In what was supposed to be another rebuilding year, Boston somehow sneaked into the playoffs, despite giving away such a significant amount of talent.
For Cleveland, it's been a tale of two seasons.
After the Cavs began the year just 19-20, trades for Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert helped turn things around. James received 15 days of rest in early January, looking healthier upon his return than at any point before.
The young Celtics may be overmatched against the star-studded Cavaliers—just don't tell them that.
“From a competitive standpoint, I think we have a good chance,” rookie point guard Marcus Smart told Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald. “We’ve just got to come out there and play the way we play, stick together. You know, they’re going to go on their runs. They’re going to make their plays. We’ve just got to stay focused and stay within each other.”
Can the Celtics make this next playoff chapter into a series, or will Cleveland cruise into the second round?
Head-to-Head Record: 2-2
|Nov. 15||122-121, Cavaliers||Cavs overcome 19-point, fourth-quarter deficit.|
|March 3||110-79, Cavaliers||Celtics shoot 35.2 percent, James scores 27.|
|April 10||99-90, Celtics||James, Love sit fourth quarter. Irving out for game.|
|April 12||117-78, Celtics||Cleveland rests James, Irving, Love and Smith.|
Due to the time of year the Celtics and Cavaliers waged battle, the split series can be a bit misleading.
When both teams played their starters, Cleveland went 2-0, winning by an average of 16 points a contest.
While the Celtics were fighting for their playoff lives, Cleveland preferred to rest. Boston took advantage of the Cavaliers sitting their starters in the final week to even the series up.
|1||Sunday, April 19||3:00 PM||Cleveland||ABC|
|2||Tuesday, April 21||7:00 PM||Cleveland||TNT|
|3||Thursday, April 23||7:00 PM||Boston||TNT|
|4||Sunday, April 26||1:00 PM||Boston||ABC|
|5*||Tuesday, April 28||TBD||Cleveland||TBD|
|6*||Thursday, April 30||TBD||Boston||TBD|
|7*||Saturday, May 2||TBD||Cleveland||TNT|
|*if necessary, via NBA|
The Cavaliers earned home-court advantage and will get to host the first two games of the series at Quicken Loans Arena.
ABC and TNT will split broadcasts, and all first-round games will be available locally via Fox Sports Ohio as well.
Key Season Stats
|Key Season Stats|
|Team||Home Record||Road Record||ORtg (Rank)||DRtg (Rank)||Net Rtg (Rank)|
|Celtics||21-20||19-22||101.7 (20th)||102.1 (13th)||-0.4 (18th)|
|Cavaliers||31-10||22-19||107.7 (4th)||104.1 (20th)||+3.6 (7th)|
Boston defended at a very high level the second half of the season, led by backcourt-stoppers Smart and Avery Bradley.
The Cavaliers defense was much improved following the trades for Mozgov and Shumpert, although their bread and butter remains a high-octane offense.
Celtics X-Factor: Isaiah Thomas
Thomas averaged 19.0 points and 5.4 assists off the bench following a trade from the Phoenix Suns.
One of the smallest, albeit quickest, guards in the league, Thomas could be a load for Cavaliers backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova to handle. Cleveland would be wise to attach Shumpert to Thomas any time he enters the game.
Cavaliers X-Factor: Timofey Mozgov
Mozgov has a nice size advantage in the post over Tyler Zeller, one the Cavs should look to exploit over and over again.
Cleveland was 11.2 points per 100 possessions better with Mozgov on the floor this season, as he's able to protect the rim and finish off many an ally-oop on offense.
Three Pressing Questions/Strategic Keys:
Will Cavaliers take Boston for Granted?
Although we've witnessed some huge playoff upsets in the recent past, the difference in talent was far more minuscule than this.
Still, the Celtics have been playing great basketball over the past two months. Since Feb. 23, Boston is 20-9, tied for the third most wins in the league. The C's play extremely unselfish basketball, assisting on a whopping 63.6 percent of all field goals, per NBA.com.
Cleveland should have enough veterans on the roster to ensure a mental letdown doesn't occur, however. Players like James, Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, Kendrick Perkins and James Jones have all been knocked out of the playoffs earlier than they would have liked and should come emotionally prepared.
What Role Players Will Step Up for Cleveland?
We know the Celtics' main priority will be to limit James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
Even if all three are held somewhat in check, the Cavaliers have some other options to go to. Coach David Blatt will likely use an eight-man rotation with a bench consisting of Shumpert, Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson.
Mozgov and Smith will both be needed in the starting lineup to help lock down the paint and spread the floor on offense. Smith averaged 13.0 points with the Cavaliers on 39.3 percent shooting from deep.
Blatt also has a bench stocked full of veterans he used only sparingly during the regular season. All fill specific needs, however, be it three-point shooting (Miller, Jones), perimeter defense (Marion) or rim protection (Perkins).
The Big Three are extremely important, but the Cavaliers' role players will have to step up as well.
Who Wins the Coaching Battle?
Stevens and Blatt are both NBA coaches on the rise, although they are nearly 20 years apart in age.
It's tough to argue against Stevens as Coach of the Year, given his team's unexpected success. As Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney writes:
Boston is nothing if not resourceful. Celtics coach Brad Stevens will investigate the opportunity in every matchup and tinker with evolving strategies, which will make life difficult for the Cavs. Push hard enough along the right tactical lines and the window opens – perhaps to the point the feisty Celtics can keep the series competitive.
For Blatt, the playoffs will be his true chance to shine. His strengths are focused around game-planning and the mental aspect of the game. Playing the same opponent over and over should suit him well.
If a game comes down to one play in the final seconds, both coaches should be well prepared.
Why the Celtics Will Win:
James catches a case of the swine flu and Irving decides to join the priesthood. In other words, it doesn't look good.
The only way Boston will have a chance is if it gets a huge scoring output from Thomas off the bench and can limit the Cavs' Big Three to 50 points or less. Cleveland loves to shoot the three ball, so the Celtics will have to defend the perimeter at a high rate and work to get into good rebounding position.
Zeller can use his mid-range game to keep Mozgov out of the paint on defense, encouraging players like Thomas and Smart to drive. The Celtics do a nice job moving the ball and will have to constantly make the extra pass. Getting good shots off simply won't be enough. Boston needs to work on every possession to take the best shot possible.
Why the Cavaliers Will Win:
The Cavs really shouldn't have to do anything special here.
James is 9-0 all time in the opening round and has traditionally feasted off his initial opponents. The Cavaliers have a huge advantage both in experience and overall talent.
Cleveland is at its best when it runs Blatt's offense and stays away from hero ball. With so many scoring options, it's important that the Cavaliers get a number of guys going early and not rely solely on James or Irving.
For a team like Cleveland with championship aspirations, this shouldn't be much of a series. No offense to Boston, but the Cavs are too strong, too talented and too hungry to lose more than even one game.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 4