Playoff Preview: Boston vs. Cleveland

2. Boston Celtics

Record: 55-27 regular season & 8-4 postseason

Offense: #18

Defense: #1

Head Coach: Brad Stevens (19-21 playoff record)

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

2017-18 Leaders (SUPERGLOOO season total in parentheses): Kyrie Irving 28.35 (1140.50); Al Horford 23.38 (1108.85); Jayson Tatum 21.08 (1070.43); Jaylen Brown 19.85 (889.94); Terry Rozier 15.90 (685.03).

Prolific Playoff Performers (SUPERGLOOO career total in parentheses): Al Horford 15.20 (1140.00); Kyrie Irving 26.78 (1054.82).

The 5,000 Minute Rule: Marcus Smart 8562; Al Horford 5511.

 PLAYOFF STARTERS MPG PPG RPG APG  PLAYOFF STATS
 G Terry Rozier  37.3  18.2  5.5  5.8  .579 true shooting %
 C Al Horford  35.8  17.0  8.7  3.3  .653 true shooting %
 F Jayson Tatum  35.3  18.8  4.5  3.2   1.2 steals per game
 F Jaylen Brown  32.0  16.9  4.8  1.4  .578 true shooting %
 G Marcus Smart  31.3  10.6  5.0  1.2  1.8 steals per game

Key: MPG playoff minutes per game; PPG playoff points per game; RPG playoff rebounds per game; APG playoff assists per game; our SUPERGLOOO metric derived from Player Efficiency Rating, along with On and On-Off plus-minus ratings; * denotes injured player may miss playoff games. SOURCE: Basketball-Reference.com

 KEY RESERVES  MPG  PPG  RPG  APG  PLAYOFF STATS
 F Marcus Morris  28.6  12.3  5.0  1.2  .386 3-point %
 C Aron Baynes  120.0  6.4  6.3  1.1  .616 true shooting %
 F Semi Ojeleye  14.5  1.8  1.8  0.1  4th fewest points-per-minute ever
 G Shane Larkin  14.0  3.7  1.0  1.8  .545 2-point shooting %
 C Greg Monroe  10.3  5.0  3.6  0.6  Played in 7 of 12 playoff games

 


Cleveland Cavaliers

Record: 50-32 regular season & 8-3 postseason

Offense: No. 5

Defense: No. 29

Head Coach: Tyronn Lue (37-13 playoff record)

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

2017-18 SUPERGLOOO Leaders (season total in parentheses): LeBron James 28.53 (1798.26); Kevin Love 21.08 (724.89); Jeff Green 18.03 (688.45); Kyle Korver 20.50 (672.23); Larry Nance 20.60 (609.85).

Prolific Playoff Performers (career total in parentheses): LeBron James 34.15 (6817.19); J.R. Smith 15.65 (1135.60); Kendrick Perkins 11.00 (772.06); Kevin Love 25.63 (888.87); Tristan Thompson 18.63 (790.79); Kyle Korver 13.25 (737.27).

The 5,000 Minute Rule: LeBron James 39,088 minutes with Cavaliers; Tristan Thompson 16,493; Kevin Love 10,153; J.R. Smith 9388.

PLAYOFF STARTERS MPG PPG RPG APG  PLAYOFF STATS
 F LeBron James  41.4  34.3  9.4  9.0  .625 true shooting %
 C Kevin Love  33.4  14.7  10.1  1.2  1.8 3-pointers per game
 G George Hill  26.1  9.8  2.1  2.5  .645 true shooting %
 F Kyle Korver  26.1  10.5  2.6  1.2  .676 true shooting %
 G J.R. Smith  32.3  10.0  2.5  1.3  1.3 steals per game

Key: MPG playoff minutes per game; PPG playoff points per game; RPG playoff rebounds per game; APG playoff assists per game; our SUPERGLOOO metric from Player Efficiency Rating, On and On-Off plus-minus ratings; * denotes injured player may miss playoff games. SOURCE: Basketball-Reference.com

 KEY RESERVES  MPG  PPG  RPG  APG  PLAYOFF NOTES
 F Jeff Green  21.9  8.0  2.2  1.6  .371 3-point %
 C Tristan Thompson  15.9  4.9  4.4  0.6  .703 true shooting %
 G Jordan Clarkson  16.6  4.6  1.5  1.1  0.5 steals pr game
 G Rodney Hood  17.0  4.6  1.4  1.1  .515 2-point %
 C Larry Nance  16.2  4.9  3.9  0.6  Played 9 games in 2018 playoffs
 F Cedi Osman  6.6  1.4  0.6  0.4  Played 5 games in 2018 playoffs

Brad versus Bron.

Brad Stevens, everybody’s NBA Coach of the Year, versus LeBron James, everybody’s NBA Playoffs MVP, if they gave out such an award.

It’s The Brain versus The Brawn.

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Though, you could easily flip those descripts for either man, since LeBron James is not only the NBA’S brawniest player—at a superhero-like 6-8, 270 pounds—he is also the NBA’s brainiest player, who has more postseason basketball savvy than anyone left in the playoffs.

You could say the same for brainy Brad, who has some of the NBA’s brawniest players at his disposal to throw back at LeBron, players who made up the League’s No. 1 defense in 2017-18.

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Either man will say this 2018 Eastern Conference Finals is not about them, it’s about teams—the Cavaliers versus The Celtics.

But let’s not kid ourselves. When push comes to shove, and adjustment meets adjustment, perhaps the intangible that will turn this series on its head is when Brad comes up with the game plan to thwart LeBron, or when LeBron makes the subtle adjustment to throw Brad’s game plan back at him and his Celtics.

When it comes to the last minute and the game is tied, all eyes will be on Stevens and the play he draws up out of timeout. Then, moments later, all eyes will be on LeBron as he seemingly freelances downcourt for a last-second shot he has actually rehearsed, time and time again.

That is why, when all is said and done, there will be nothing left to say or do, than watch the BvB matchup within the matchup.

But in the meantime, let’s talk about the others.

Coach Stevens will likely start with a Golden State Warriors type lineup since coaches Steve Kerr and Ron Adams have been the only team in the past four postseasons to consistently limit the Cavaliers offense, holding them under 103.0 defensive efficiency in eight games during that span, while the rest of the League only has five such games.

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

By using the athletic lengthy-and-wingspan-y lineup of Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, the Dubs have been able to use successful defensive schemes on LeBron and Company, mostly by being able to switch screens whenever they choose, while also having rim protectors in the game at all times, thus limiting LeBron’s rim runs and free throw attempts. The Adams-created defensive game plan is something Stevens is familiar with, especially since he hired Adams as an associate coach when he first joined Boston as a rookie NBA head coach five years ago.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Likewise, Stevens could play a Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier lineup for half the game—with various Marcus Morris substitutions being used quite frequently—giving his Celtics similar defensive versatility to what the Warriors use. The Horford-Tatum-Brown-Smart-Rozier unit generated a +19 plus-minus score in the 39 minutes of regular season and playoff action they saw in 2017-18, while Boston’s most popular postseason unit—with Morris replacing Smart in that set—has played 61 playoff minutes together at 128.6 points per 100 possessions and a +18.4 net rating.

Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Because Cleveland has no giant centers to play, center Aron Baynes, who played 24 minutes per game and played big against Philadelphia and Joel Embiid in Round 2, may not be as necessary in this matchup, other than to spell Horford for rest from time to time.

Conversely, Coach Tyronn Lue, who deserves Coach of the Playoffs conversation, has finally found a lineup that is killing after not using it once during the 2017-18 season. By playing George Hill and J.R. Smith together in the backcourt, the Cavs have their best defensive guard combo since Smith and Matthew Dellavedova gave The Splash Brothers problems in Finals past. On top of that, Hill has mastered the Mario Chalmers-like, 3-and-D point guard role that LeBron prefers when he is running the show. As for Smith, his ego calls for starting status for him to play his best, and ever since Lue has deferred to his veterans at playoff time, Smith found his shooting stroke.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

As for forward Kyle Korver and stretch center Kevin Love, the Cavs’ new dynamic duo has emerged as the team’s second- and third-leading scorers behind LeBron, giving Cleveland a new two-man game of synergetic shooters who created all kinds of mismatch situations for Toronto’s bigs last round. All told, the Love-LeBron-Korver-Smith-Hill quintet has played 110 playoff minutes together and generated a 125.5 points per 100 possessions offensive efficiency with a +17.5 net rating.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

As for Tristan Thompson, Jeff Green and the Cavs newcomers, look for their bench roles to be at a minimum this series with the Cleveland starters likely to garner 30- to 40-plus minute; Boston’s main six likely does the same. Other than a starter getting in foul trouble, it is quite doubtful either coach will dig deep in his bench unless the pace gets surprisingly high (Cleveland and Boston are two of the slowest-paced playoff teams at 91 and 93 possessions per game; by comparison, New Orleans ranked first at 103).

In short, Boston will continue running its offensive attack through everybody. Six Celtics are averaging double-figure scoring, while rookie sensation Tatum continually steps up to the challenge every game, while his team steps up in stature every round (the 20-year-old forward has scored 20-plus points in seven straight games).

Boston’s “C Us Rise” mentality is not only showing on the offensive and defensive ends, but also on the boards where seven different Celtics–including the two starting guards Rozier and Smart–are all averaging five or more rebounds per game.

When has that ever happened in NBA Playoff history?

To beat Boston, you are going to have to beat all who suit up. To beat Cleveland, you are going to have to go through LeBron. And though it may have taken awhile, Bron finally has a lineup of partners who are pretty good shooters and defenders in their own right. Good luck with that, Brad.

CAVALIERS IN 7