Before the 2017-18 season started, many NBA fans predicted the final four teams now left in the conference finals bracket. But both Eastern Conference teams took an unconventional route to reach this point.
The Cleveland Cavaliers went through wholesale changes coming into the year and at the trade deadline, but LeBron James remained as the reliable constant. He'll play in his eighth consecutive conference finals.
James' critics will say he's facing a watered-down Boston Celtics team without stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, but the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers were still eliminated by Coach Brad Stevens' group. Will Cleveland take down Boston in consecutive years for a spot in the NBA Finals?
The Western Conference bracket features two of the most explosive teams in recent memory. James Harden and Chris Paul have put on a show in the Houston Rockets backcourt all season, but the Golden State Warriors still rank highest in scoring. Which group sputters first in a seven-game series?
2018 NBA Conference Finals TV Schedule
Game 1: Cleveland at Boston: Sunday, May 13 at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC
Game 1: Golden State at Houston: Monday, May 14 at 9 p.m. ET on TNT
Game 2: Cleveland at Boston: Tuesday, May 15 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Game 2: Golden State at Houston: Wednesday, May 16 at 9 p.m. ET on TNT
Game 3: Boston at Cleveland: Saturday, May 19 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Game 3: Houston at Golden State: Sunday, May 20 at 8 p.m. ET on TNT
Game 4: Boston at Cleveland: Monday, May 21 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Game 4: Houston at Golden State: Tuesday, May 22 9 p.m. on TNT
*Game 5: Cleveland at Boston: Wednesday, May 23 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
*Game 5: Golden State at Houston: Thursday, May 24 9 p.m. on TNT
*Game 6: Boston at Cleveland: Friday, May 25 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
*Game 6: Houston at Golden State: Saturday, May 26 at 9 p.m. ET on TNT
*Game 7: Cleveland at Boston: Sunday, May 27 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
*Game 7: Golden State at Houston: Monday, May 28 at 9 p.m. ET on TNT
Note: *-indicates if necessary, schedule courtesy of NBA.com
Conference Finals Series Predictions
Eastern Conference: No. 2 Boston Celtics vs. No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers
Both teams went through a grueling seven-game series in the opening round of the postseason then eliminated their next opponents in a shorter time frame. In this particular matchup, there's history and familiarity.
James has a 4-2 playoff series record against Boston. The Celtics' Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier went down in five games to the Cavaliers in the conference finals last year. Now, they return with a 20-year-old postseason scoring leader who is on a tear, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Just a year removed from Duke, Jayson Tatum has played a major role on the big stage. Can the No. 3 overall pick handle the heightened expectations?
In an attempt to disrupt his rhythm, Cleveland will apply intense defensive pressure when he touches the ball. If Tatum experiences early struggles, the Celtics won't reach their 104-point average for the postseason.
However, the Cavaliers average the fewest amount of points among the final four teams at 103.5 per game. Nonetheless, James has been virtually unstoppable throughout the postseason and is Cleveland's equalizer.
Head coach Brad Stevens has instilled confidence in his group, but he doesn't have the offensive firepower to match the Cavaliers secondary scorers if they find their shooting stroke. Keeping them locked down for an entire series will be a tough ask.
Rozier has come up with big buckets through the Celtics' 12 games, but he's still a relatively inefficient scorer, with 42.3 percent shooting from the field in the playoffs. Coming off the bench, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris shoot below 36.0 percent. This is concerning because the Cavs can slow the game down with a half-court offense and allow James to take over.
Boston will need to rely on limiting secondary scorers Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver for stretches. It's an easier feat with Irving on the bench in Boston, but James ultimately tips the balance in Cleveland's favor. Love's solid play should also factor into this series. After a rocky start to the postseason, he averaged 25 points in the last three outings.
Prediction: Cavaliers win in 7 games
Western Conference: No. 1 Houston Rockets vs. No. 2 Golden State Warriors
Paul emphatically punched his first ticket to the conference finals in Game 5 against the Utah Jazz. His stat line in the contest was the first of its kind in a playoff game:
Despite his lack of experience this deep into the playoffs, an eight-time All-NBA selection should have no problem performing on the big stage. A 13th-year veteran who's been waiting to advance past the semifinals round, Paul won't have the butterflies that Tatum may experience as a 20-year-old rookie.
Paul has competed against the same guys as bitter rivals during his six years with the Los Angeles Clippers. The Warriors managed to get the best of him, but it's not a new challenge for the nine-time All-Star.
Golden State's underrated defense gives them the edge, though. It held the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans to a combined 43.0 percent from the field, which ranks No. 1 among all postseason clubs.
On an individual level, forward Kevin Durant has improved his effort on the defensive end. He finished the regular season with 119 blocked shots and has recorded 10 in 10 playoff games.
The Rockets have allowed 100.1 points per postseason game, but they haven't played an offensive team comparable to the Warriors. Their opponents shot 45.9 percent from the field, which isn't nearly as impressive as Golden State's league-leading percentage in the category.
We'll see offensive fireworks, but the team able to make critical stops wins the series. Check the box for the defending champions.
Prediction: Warriors win in 6 games