As the Cleveland Cavaliers' obliteration of the Eastern Conference continues, they can once again take a week (or more) off while waiting for a future opponent to limp into the ring.
After sweeping the Toronto Raptors to improve to a perfect 8-0 this postseason, Cleveland awaits the winner of the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics, whose series is tied at two games apiece. If the series goes six contests, the Cavaliers will have seven days off. Should it go the full seven, that would mean nine days between series for the Cavs.
The Celtics were the only East team to finish with the better regular-season record, going 53-29 to Cleveland's 51-31. Should they advance, the first two games would be in Boston, along with a potential Game 5 and 7.
Both teams are supremely talented and, despite Cleveland's recent switch-flippery, shouldn't be taken lightly.
Does Boston or Washington have what it takes to end the Cavaliers' NBA Finals runs? Probably not, but one opponent clearly stands as the greater test.
Personnel Matchups and Strategy: Advantage Celtics
Here's what a Celtics-Cavs matchup would look like:
|Celtics Individual Matchups|
|Kyrie Irving||Isaiah Thomas||?|
|J.R. Smith||Avery Bradley||Celtics|
|LeBron James||Jae Crowder||Cavs|
|Kevin Love||Amir Johnson||Cavs|
|Tristan Thompson||Al Horford||Celtics|
|Williams, Korver, Frye, Shumpert||Green, Olynyk, Smart, Rozier||?|
Kyrie Irving vs. Isaiah Thomas features two of the NBA's great point guards who will have absolutely no hope of guarding one another.
While Thomas grabbed most of the headlines in the regular season by carrying the Celtics to the No. 1 seed, Irving has played him nearly eye-for-eye in these playoffs.
Thomas is putting up 25.6 points and 5.6 assists with 3.4 turnovers while Irving is at 23.8 points and 5.8 assists with 2.1 miscues per game.
Of course, neither will be asked to play defense on the other.
During their regular-season meetings, it was shooting guard Avery Bradley who took on the challenge of containing Irving's ball-handling wizardry. Bradley is one of the best one-on-one defenders to be placed on Irving I've ever seen, and the four-time All-Star shot just 32.0 percent from deep against Boston this year.
On the other side, one need only look at Cleveland's strategy for guarding DeMar DeRozan to see what it's about to throw at Thomas.
Head coach Tyronn Lue has preached taking out the opponent's best player and forcing others to make plays. It worked against the Raptors, as the Cavaliers consistently blitzed DeRozan, forcing him to give up the ball or take tough shots. He averaged just 20.8 points in the series (27.3 in the regular season), including a measly five in a 125-102 Game 2 loss.
The Cavaliers will be perfectly happy starting 6'6" J.R. Smith on the 5'9" Thomas, moving extra bodies out to help as needed. No one else on the Celtics is scoring more than 15.5 points per game this postseason.
Boston does have Jae Crowder to help slow down LeBron James, as his 6'6", 235-pound frame is better than anything the Raptors possessed. When Crowder needs a break? Well, there's not a lot left in the cupboard. Rookie Jaylen Brown may draw occasional defensive assignments on James, who's averaging 34.4 points on 55.7 percent shooting in two sweeps.
Kevin Love will gladly seek revenge against Boston in what would be his first postseason meeting with Kelly Olynyk since the C's big man dislocated Love's shoulder in Game 4 of Round 1 in 2015. Al Horford will be a tough cover for Tristan Thompson, as he'll have to extend his defense all the way to the three-point line.
Both teams sport strong benches. Cleveland's reserves have a net rating of plus-6.7 this postseason compared to Boston's plus-5.1. The Cavaliers' second unit has become a group of absolute snipers, led by Deron Williams (60.0 three-point percentage), Channing Frye (55.2 percent) and Kyle Korver (48.5 percent). It helps that Lue puts James in to start the second and fourth quarters surrounded by these bench shooters as well.
Overall, the Celtics have no answers for James outside of Crowder. If Cleveland can cut off the head of the snake by neutralizing Thomas, Boston's role players will have a hard time matching the Cavaliers' offensive firepower.
Personnel Matchups and Strategy: Advantage Wizards
Here's what a Wizards-Cavs matchup would look like:
|Wizards Individual Matchups|
|Kyrie Irving||John Wall||?|
|J.R. Smith||Bradley Beal||Wizards|
|LeBron James||Otto Porter||Cavs|
|Kevin Love||Markieff Morris||Cavs|
|Tristan Thompson||Marcin Gortat||Wizards|
|Williams, Korver, Frye Shumpert||Bogdanovic, Oubre, Jennings, Smith||Cavs|
Unlike Boston, if the Cavs want to blitz one superstar, the Wizards have a second ready to strike.
John Wall should be the focal point of Cleveland's containment defense, as he's putting up 28.8 points, 11.1 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.1 blocks this postseason. The bad news? Bradley Beal is dropping 23.6 points in a supporting role.
Much like the Cavs decision to stop DeRozan and live with what Kyle Lowry and company would do, Cleveland's entire strategy should be limiting Wall, something Irving can't do on his own.
As tough as corralling the backcourt would be, the Wizards pose a threat inside the paint as well.
Marcin Gortat (6'11", 240 pounds) has been a load for Tristan Thompson to handle in the past. He plays an extremely physical game that can wear Thompson down over the course of a series.
"When Tristan plays against those big centers, it’s tough on him," Lue said after Cleveland's 127-115 loss to Washington on March 25. "You don't want (Thompson) to have to wrestle with those big guys on a night-to-night basis. He's the only center we have."
Playing style will make a big difference in a Wiz-Cavs series as well. In their most recent meeting in late March, Washington's offensive strategy was quite clear.
"You can see all the coaches on the sidelines saying, 'Go. Push it. Push it.' We have to get back and be better in transition," Lue said. "It seemed like they were so much faster than us. Tonight was a tough night."
Cleveland was outscored 27-4 in fast-break points, with Wall pushing the ball at every opportunity. The Cavs possessed the NBA's worst transition defense during the regular season (1.18 points per possession allowed), while Washington ranked first overall (1.02).
This postseason has been very different, however. While the Wizards' transition D has remained constant (1.03 points per possession allowed), Cleveland's has improved all the way to a stingy 0.94, second only to the Golden State Warriors' 0.93.
The Wizards' fast-break game will certainly test the Cavaliers' newfound defensive intensit and may be good enough to steal a win in a potential series.
Even though they finished with the No. 4 seed in the East, the Wizards present much more of a challenge than the first-place Celtics.
The ability to have a second alpha dog to create shots if Cleveland blitzes is huge for Washington and something Boston simply doesn't possess. As for the Celtics' home-court advantage? The Cavs are 4-0 at home this postseason and an equally perfect 4-0 on the road, where James actually prefers to play.
Of course, no matter who advances the Cavaliers have LeBron James, this generation's ultimate trump card.
If facing Boston: Cavs in four.
If facing Washington: Cavs in five.
Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.