The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, the two top seeds in the Eastern Conference, will meet in the conference finals beginning Wednesday. The winner of the series will move on to the NBA Finals to play either the Golden State Warriors or the San Antonio Spurs.
The Cavaliers finished off the regular season with a four game losing streak. However, they came right back in the playoffs by sweeping the seventh-seeded Indiana Pacers in the conference quarterfinals and then making quick work of the third-seeded Toronto Raptors in the conference semifinals. Cleveland is led by its top players, forwards LeBron James and Kevin Love as well as guard Kyrie Irving.
The three All-Stars are making a big impact for the team. During the regular season, Irving, James, and Love averaged about 71 combined points per game. In the playoffs, the three leading scorers for the Cavs are back to being the Big Three. Even with their losing streak, they got consistently better in the playoffs. In the four games the Cavs played in the first round against the Pacers, the largest margin Cleveland won by was six points. As for their sweep of the Raptors, the largest margin the Cavs won by was twenty-two points. Their performance at the start of the playoffs proved that the end of the regular season was just a fluke.
The Boston Celtics rose to the first seed after the Cavs’ losing streak. They played the Chicago Bulls, the eighth seed. The night before the first game against the Bulls, Isaiah Thomas’ sister, Chyna, died in a car accident. Isaiah was deeply saddened by the loss of his sister, but he came out strong and played Game 1 the next day, scoring 33 points. Still, the Celtics lost the first two games. However, they won last four games of the series and moved on to face Washington. For those final games of the series when the Celtics won, many players stepped up and supported Isaiah Thomas. Starting center Al Horford contributed an average of 16.5 points in those four games and starting guard/forward Avery Bradley contributed 17.5.
The Washington series came down to the wire. In Game 2, Isaiah Thomas scored 53 points, making 18 shots out of 33 attempts. Of those 53 points, Isaiah scored 29 of them in the 4th quarter and overtime combined. In that same time, the Wizards entire team scored 30 points. However, this wasn’t all about Thomas making plays. Celtics guard Avery Bradley had what many consider the best game of his career in Game 5. He scored 29 points and was a 63 percent shooter that night. Center Al Horford also came up big. He averaged 16.7 points and 6.6 rebounds in the series.
The Celtics had a chance to move on in Game 6, but in the final seconds, Wizards guard John Wall hit a three-point shot over Avery Bradley to seal the win. In Game 7, the Celtics ended up defeating the Wizards 115-105. Center Kelly Olynyk was the top performer for the Celtics, scoring 12 of his 26 points in an outstanding fourth quarter. He also grabbed five rebounds.
Boston now has a true challenge in front of them. During the regular season, the Cavaliers beat the Celtics three out of four times. The one game that the Celtics won was on March 1, when they defeated the Cavs by only four, 103-99. In this game, Isaiah Thomas led the way with 31 points for the Celtics. In the other three games, the Cavaliers had better shooting percentages while LeBron James and Kyrie Irving led the way with points. Let’s take a look at the matchups for this series:
Both players have different specialties on each side of the ball. On offense, the 5’9” Thomas can drive on much bigger defenders, and can shoot the three. However, Kyrie Irving has the height advantage at 6’3”, and can use it when playing on offense. Defensively, the Celtics might have a problem if the Cavaliers choose to target Thomas, and when the Cavs are on defense, Irving will have to watch out for Thomas’ agility.
Shooting Guard – Avery Bradley vs. J.R. Smith
These two players aren’t considered the best in the league, but they do have talent. Both players have the ability to shoot the ball and both play well in big moments for their team. J.R. Smith has a four-inch height advantage, but that won’t become costly for either team.
Small Forward – Jae Crowder vs. LeBron James
This one of the more intriguing matchups in the series. LeBron James, one of the best players in NBA history, will go up against Jae Crowder, a hard-working Celtics forward. In the four matchups against the Celtics this season, James averaged 29 points. Crowder, 26, will have to step up his game to prove that he can defend James. Meanwhile, both players have offensive strengths including being able to shoot the ball from deep and use their height to drive to the basket.
Power Forward – Amir Johnson vs. Kevin Love
Kevin Love is one of the three main players on the Cavaliers, but he hasn’t played great in the playoffs yet. He’s averaged just 13.8 points. Amir Johnson has been an average player on the Celtics, averaging 3.1 points, but his height and ability to score at the basket will help.
Center – Al Horford vs. Tristan Thompson
Neither one of these players is the big star for their team, but they are important to their team’s success, which is why this matchup will be so interesting to watch. Horford and Thompson are two players who really do a good job fighting for the rebounds, but what really stands out in this matchup is Horford’s ability to shoot the three. This season, he made 35.5% of his shots from beyond the arc. As for Thompson, the three is out of his range.
Another important part of both teams’ strategies will involve their bench players. The Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart both play big roles coming off the bench. Olynyk averaged 9.0 points; Smart averaged 10.7. On the Cavaliers, Kyle Korver and Channing Frye contribute to their success. Korver averaged 10.1 points; Frye averaged 9.1.
The Celtics don’t have enough firepower besides Thomas to match the Cavs’ big three, and that trio will play well, leading the Cavs to win the series in six games. Coming out of Game 7, the Celtics are red-hot and are going to fight hard, but the Cavaliers have enough strength to stop Boston’s run.
Photographs by (from top): Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images; Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images