Preview: Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

The Boston Celtics survived the Wizards in Game 7. For a team that isn’t fully committed to the present, the Celtic fans must be enjoying life presently. Boston struggled to win on the road in the previous series, and they’ll have zero chance against Cleveland if that continues. Isaiah Thomas has been the lead dog for Boston throughout the playoffs, though the hero of Game 7 was undoubtedly Kelly Olynyk, who scored 26 off the bench Monday night. #StrengthInNumbers might be a Warriors catchphrase, but it’s the Celtics who keep finding contributions from their supporting cast.

Chances are, the Cleveland Cavaliers are bored, restless or both. The Cavs haven’t played since May 7, 2017. Which means they have had 10 days since they last played, and it has been much longer than that since they’ve last been challenged. The Indiana Pacers tried their best and it wasn’t even close in their four-game sweep at the hands of the Cavs. The Toronto Raptors, who took the Cavaliers to six games in 2016, got swept, and the Cavaliers crafted videogame levels of disrespect during the series. Whether it was behind-the-back passes on the break, ball spins or fake beer swigs, the Cavaliers have clearly been a class above the competition to date. LeBron James and company head to Boston for Game 1 on Wednesday night.

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Celtics vs. Cavaliers this season

The Cavaliers went 3-1 vs. the Celtics over the course of the regular season. The only loss came in a game in which Kevin Love did not play. The final meeting on April 5 was a blowout. James put up 36 points, 12 rebounds and dished 6 assists on the way to a 23-point spanking of Isaiah Thomas and the boys. Over the course of his career, James has averaged 29.6 PPG vs. the Celtics, his highest mark against any team.

There’s a lot of history here. The Celtics were the last Eastern Conference team to send James home, way back in 2010 when it was still the Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo championship core, and prior to the Heatles forming. Since that time, James and friends have ended Boston’s season in 2011, 2012 and 2015. This season, James averaged 29.3 PPG, 9.5 RPG and 9.8 APG against Boston, numbers that would make even his harshest critic blush. At the opposite end, Isaiah Thomas averaged 29.5 PPG, 3 RPG and 6.5 APG vs. Cleveland. The record and home court advantage might suggest that the Celtics are favorites, but since the start of the postseason, the Celtics have become huge underdogs in the series.

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What the Cavaliers need to do to win

The Cleveland Cavaliers have to keep doing what they’ve been doing. Kyrie Irving has been inconsistent, as has Love, and it hasn’t mattered. The Cavaliers should be able to keep riding James all the way to the Finals and possibly beyond, but some consistency from the rest of the supporting cast would be good. If for no other reason than to gear up for the final frontier in California.

Depth was a weapon for the Celtics in the Semifinals, and Cleveland will have to match that. In years past (the 2015 Finals come to mind), the Cavaliers struggled with their second unit. That’s not the case this year. Channing Frye, Deron Williams and Kyle Korver give LeBron James trusted and lethal snipers to command when Love and Irving sit.

In years past, Tristan Thompson has had his way with now Celtics big man Al Horford. The Canadian brute will try and maul his way to yet another rebounding advantage for the reigning champs. Extra possessions are always good, but second chances for a James-led team with eight noted three-point specialists is another matter entirely.

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What the Celtics need to do to win

Rebellions are built on hope! Make no mistake, the Boston Celtics are rebels fighting against a one-man empire that has stood relatively unopposed for seven years. The Celtics may or may not be the team to restore balance to the Eastern Conference, but they are led by the ultimate defier of the odds. Isaiah Thomas has gone from 60th pick to MVP candidate and he isn’t done yet.

Narrative aside, most real rebellions are suppressed quickly with severe measures of shock and awe. The best player in the NBA is not to be trifled with. Nor are Irving and Love, who can score 30 in a hurry. The Celtics had five players score 20 or more points in the second round. Thomas, Horford, Olynyk, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder all chipped in big games to beat the Wizards. The Celtics will need three of them to fire at that kind of clip every night. For most of this year, Thomas has carried the Celtics offense to heights no one could’ve predicted, but a one-man show is doomed in the face of such overwhelming adversity.

The Celtics’ defense will have to limit the penetration and space created by both James and Irving, as they can’t allow drive-and-kick triples to maim them into submission. It’s a tough task at both ends for Boston.

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What will happen

The San Antonio Spurs almost caught Golden State sleeping after a May hibernation, and the same is possible for Boston against Cleveland in Game 1. The Celtics’ best chance to punch Cleveland in the mouth is the rust-filled opening game. Coming off the emotional high of a Game 7 win and getting an overly rested Cavaliers team on the road is a dream scenario as far as Cleveland nightmares go.

I expect this Celtics team to give Cleveland their first loss of the postseason. I expect it to happen in Game 1 of this series, but I don’t think they take another one. The talent disparity is just far too great. James and the crew will respond after getting jabbed in the nose and take the series in five.

Prediction: Cavaliers in five games.