BOSTON -- Home-court advantage in the East will be at stake, but the story here on Wednesday (Cavaliers vs. Celtics, 8 ET on ESPN) -- win or lose -- is going to revolve around the Cavaliers. Since the All-Star break the defending champions have been a .500 team with a 29th-ranked defense. Have they simply been uninspired? Or are they exhausted?
Coach Brad Stevens, whose Celtics (50-27) are tied with Cleveland atop the conference, was aware of the statistical negatives that are shadowing the arrival of LeBron James. "But then as you’re preparing for a team," said Stevens of the Cavaliers, "it’s a lot more about what they are capable of."
At their best, the Cavaliers should be almost unbeatable in the Eastern bracket. But can they reconnect with their championship form of last season? The most relevant clue of their readiness will emerge from this showdown against Boston -- Cleveland’s last remaining challenger for the No. 1 seed.
"They’ve had their moments where they haven’t played quite as well or maybe lost a game here or there," Stevens went on. "But at the end of the day this team can score on anybody at anytime, and we have all seen them turn it up to a defensive level where are they are very, very difficult to score on."
Thanks to a pair of early victories in 2016 (happier times), a win over Boston will clinch the head-to-head tiebreaker for the Cavaliers -- effectively giving them a two-game lead with five to play. The question is whether they can muster up the focus and energy coming off a double-OT win on Sunday against Indiana (in which James played 52 minutes) and then a 122-102 beating of Orlando Tuesday night. Cleveland is 1-9 this season on the tail end of back-to-backs on the road, but coach Ty Lue said that there are no plans to rest James (No. 2 in the NBA with 37.6 minutes), Kyrie Irving (No. 14 with 35.1 minutes) or Kyle Korver (who played 11 minutes Tuesday while dealing with a foot injury) for this pivotal game.
While injuries and the exhaustion of reaching the last two NBA Finals have led to a miserable regular season for Cleveland, the Celtics -- who haven’t won a playoff series since 2012 - have been upbeat and optimistic. When a reporter asked Isaiah Thomas if he was planning to follow Cleveland’s example and sit out a game or two before the playoffs, Boston’s All-Star guard glared comically. "I don’t like to rest," Thomas said. "Hopefully I can play these last games and finish strong."
While Cleveland has been in decline, the surging Celtics have ranked No. 5 in defensive efficiency since the break. On March 1 they beat the Cavaliers 103-99 in spite of 56 points split evenly by James (who had a triple-double) and Irving. The Celtics would welcome a repeat of that formula: They held the other Cavaliers (in the absence of Kevin Love and J.R. Smith, who have since recovered from injuries) to 17 of 51 overall, while Boston converted 41.9% of its 31 3-pointers and Thomas led everyone with 31 points (10 of 20 from the field).
"They’ve won the championship, they’ve been to the Finals for the last two years - they know what it takes to win. You can’t put that past them."
Stevens didn’t need to warn his players that Cleveland’s defense could pivot instantly to championship form. "They can put a lineup out there that can switch 1 through 5, they can switch a bunch of different screens," Stevens said. "From my perspective, I don’t look at them as a team from where they stand defensively by the numbers. I look at what I’ve seen in the past and what they’re capable of."
The Cavaliers have had trouble getting back on defense and covering the pick and roll. Even so, there can be no arrogance among the Celtics. They’ve won the season-series over two winning teams (2-0 vs. Utah and Memphis), and against their top three rivals in the East and the top three teams in the West, Boston is 6-11.
"I watch a lot of their games," said Thomas of the slumping Cavaliers. "Every team goes through it at some point in the season. They’re just happening to go through it right now. They’ve won the championship, they’ve been to the Finals for the last two years - they know what it takes to win. You can’t put that past them. It’s obvious they are going through whatever they’re going through. But that is their problem. We can’t worry too much about what they’re going through."
A sold-out TD Garden will do its best to make the game feel like a playoff preview. The environment will bring out familiar feelings for James, who is pursuing a seventh straight NBA Finals after spending his early years learning how to overcome the Celtics of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers.
"We can’t go around it," said Boston power forward Al Horford, who was lured to Boston by the high-pitched environment that he’ll be experiencing Wednesday. "Not so much that it’s Cleveland - it’s just when you look at what’s at stake. The biggest thing for us is to make sure we’re playing good basketball, we are out there competing, we are playing hard - we are doing the things that we want to get ready for the postseason."
It’s a long to-do list. But it’s that time of year.
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