For a few days at least, much of the talk about this rematch of the 2017 Eastern Conference finals will focus on what might have been. In what could have offered some poetic closure to the Eastern Conference portion of this season, former Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving would be taking on his old team and, specifically, LeBron James, the superstar “big brother” whom he’d dissed by demanding a trade.
Meanwhile, in a more perfect pulp-fiction world, Cleveland would be setting loose point guard Isaiah Thomas on the Boston Celtics, giving him a chance for payback to the team that dealt him away the instant it sniffed the chance to land Irving.
Those plotlines are kaput; Irving’s season ended in March with left knee surgery, Thomas got dealt from Cleveland at the February trade deadline. The best we’ll get now are sideline shots of Irving in street clothes on Boston’s bench, reacting to the series’ ebbs and flows. Thomas might be limited to tweeting from afar.
That leaves one clear, distinct narrative: The King of the East vs. perhaps the best collection of aspirants to his throne. James is trying to cap one of his most remarkable seasons by advancing to his eighth consecutive Finals, having led the Cavaliers to the past three after four with the Miami Heat. He has coaxed and carried these Cavs along a steep learning curve, finally getting them spiffed up by the end of their sweep of Toronto.
“He’s been doing this for a long time,” Boston’s Marcus Smart said after the clincher over Philadelphia. “He’s, if not the greatest, one of the greatest to do it. What better way than to go up and compete against a guy that’s [going to have] statues and things like that.”
The Celtics, by contrast, are a team trying to write fresh history. They’re ahead of schedule, too, given Irving’s absence and the loss of prize free agent Gordon Hayward way back on opening night to a gruesome leg injury, coincidentally, in Cleveland. Boston put out a talented Milwaukee Bucks club in the opening round, then dumped the Philadelphia 76ers -- another rising franchise in the East – in five games.
And for those who think the West has the sexier conference clash, this one offers a pretty slick matchup: James against Boston coach Brad Stevens. Widely regarded as a master tactician, Stevens -- whose Celtics lost in five games to the Cavaliers in last year’s East finals -- gets another multi-game shot. In last year’s series, James averaged these numbers to beat: 29.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 6.8 apg, 2.2 spg and 1.2 bpg.
3 quick questions and answers
- Who guards LeBron? This is the first question (or should be) of every preview of every playoff series every year of James’ career since he first started qualifying in 2006. Toronto used the length of OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam on James but neither of the Celtics’ young, long forwards -- Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum -- would be ideal for the duty, because Boston needs their scoring. Brown will take his turn but look for Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart in the crosshairs, counting on their physical force to bother Cleveland’s star. With undoubtedly lots of help and different looks, all the while sticking close to shooters like Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and Kevin Love. Said center Aron Baynes late Wednesday: “We know where the head of the snake is and we know what we have to focus on but he’s got a lot of great role players around him and some other guys that can really create as well.
- Will Point Guard Showdown 1A be a letdown? So instead of Irving vs. Thomas, we’ll get Terry Rozier vs. George Hill. That’s not a bad backup plan, because Rozier has had a star-is-born postseason so far and Hill has been a huge help to the Cavs after missing 3 1/2 games in the first round. Hill has more experience and is a scrappy defender, but Rozier -- who averaged 16.7 points and shot 47.1 percent from three in the regular season vs. Cleveland -- has speed and energy that might swing this matchup in Boston’s favor.
- Will Love love this matchup with Horford? Kevin Love doesn’t like playing center, but Cavs coach Tyronn Lue likes the effect that has on opposing defenses. Love has an inside-outside game that makes him a tough cover for both the big fives and for more agile power-forward types. The challenge in this round is how Love copes with Al Horford, who has comparable forward’s skills. It won’t be a traditional battle of bigs, for which Love will be grateful after tangling with Toronto’s jumbo Jonas Valanciunas.
The number to know
18.5 -- The Cavs scored 121.5 points per 100 possessions in the conference semifinals against Toronto, 18.5 more than they scored in the first round against Indiana (103.0). The Indy series was too close for comfort; The Pacers actually outscored Cleveland by 40 points in the series and Cavs not named James registered an effective field goal percentage of just 47 percent (the league average is 52 percent). But things were much different against the No. 1 seed, with Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith combining to shoot 24-for-38 (63 percent) from 3-point range and Kevin Love recovering from a funk to average 25 points on 54 percent shooting over the final three games. The Cavs' defense remains a question, but they always have the ability to score points in bunches. The Celtics had the No. 1 defense in the regular season and the regular season series was on the ugly side (the teams combined to score just 100 points per 100 possessions), but Boston will have to pick its poison with James surrounded by shooters that have started to shoot well. -- John Schuhmann
Making the pick
The Cavaliers won two of the three meetings between these teams in the regular season, with their more impressive victory coming mere days after the Cleveland roster makeover at the trade deadline. The Cavs were plus-11 in the season series, James averaged 24.0 ppg, 10.3 rpg and 8.3 apg, Boston shot 30-of-106 from three and ... aw, who are we kidding? Regular season results matter little now. James is determined to win his 24th consecutive Eastern Conference series to reach his eighth straight Finals. He was a maestro vs. the Raptors in drawing out his teammates’ games. The Celtics, allowing for their injuries, already have overachieved. That ends here. Cavaliers in 6.
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