Cavs vs. Celtics: Eastern Conference Finals Primer

Cavs vs. Celtics:Eastern Conference Finals Primer

Following Slugfest Over Indy and a Raptors Sweep, Cavs and Celts Lock Horns Again

by Joe Gabriele (@CavsJoeG)
5/10/18 | Cavs.com

If you took a poll of 100 NBA fans and pundits, say, three days after last year’s NBA Finals wrapped up, maybe 90 of those people would’ve said next year’s Eastern Conference Finals would be a rematch of Cavs-Celtics.

Exactly none of those 100 people would have predicted that this is how we’d get here.

Back then, you might’ve thought that the Cavaliers "Big Three" would be making their fourth straight run at the Ring and that the young Celtics were continuing their ascent. You might’ve predicted that the Cavs would sweep the Raptors – but only based on recent history and not the 59-win season a revamped Raptors squad took into this year’s four-game ouster.

Fast forward to October 16 – the night before the new-look Celtics and Cavaliers would square off in the opener and after the dust had settled on the offseason. You still could have predicted a Cavs-Celtics ECF and not seen this circuitous route.

But here we are.

On Wednesday night – with Gordon Hayward rehabbing in Indiana and Kyrie Irving in street clothes – the Celtics polished off the up-and-coming Sixers in Game 5. Coach Brad Stevens has made it all work, replacing those two All-Stars with prized rookie Jayson Tatum and former Shaker Heights Red Raider, Terry Rozier.

In terms of the Cavaliers’ chrysalis from last summer, Jae Crowder and his Jazz went fishing earlier this week and Isaiah Thomas watched from home. Cleveland turned those two into Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Rodney Hood – and still have promising 21-year-old big man Ante Zizic and Brooklyn’s pick, set to be unveiled in this coming Tuesday's Draft Lottery, to show for it.

The Celtics and Cavaliers both went through seven-game slugfests just to survive the First Round.

The Greek Freak and his Bucks took Boston the distance before being polished off decisively in Game 7. The Cavaliers lost the series opener against Victor Oladipo and the stubborn Pacers, were down 2-1 at one point and were blown out by 30 in Game 6 before closing out Indiana two Sundays ago at The Q.

The Sixers, who had an incredible regular season and strong First Round against Miami, looked out of their depth in the Semis against the Celtics – who flummoxed both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid throughout the series.

The Raptors, who had an even better regular season, ran into an annual buzzsaw named LeBron James, who got plenty of help as Cleveland demoralized Toronto in four separate ways, sending them packing in six days after it took them six months to claim the East’s top seed.

That’s how we got here.

Where this crazy season goes from this point, we’ll start leaning those answers on Mother’s Day in Beantown when the Conference Finals tip off at 3:30 p.m. While you gear up for Game 1, here’s a Celtics Primer to get you ready …

Tristan Thompson and Greg Monroe square off in Cleveland's one-sided win over the Celtics on February 11 in Beantown.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

1. The Cavaliers and Celtics faced off three times during the regular season and although both squads went through quite a metamorphosis this year, the Wine & Gold were almost three different teams in each meeting against Boston.

The season opener on October 17 pitted Kyrie Irving against Derrick Rose at the point with Gordon Hayward facing off against LeBron James at the 3. In the January 3 matchup, the Cavaliers had finally gotten Isaiah Thomas back (although he didn’t play), but they were just beginning a month-long funk that nearly destroyed their season. On February 11, Cleveland had remade its entire roster and the newest Cavaliers made their debut on a Sunday afternoon in Boston.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the three-game set this season …

OCTOBER 17: A festive atmosphere was quickly extinguished when Gordon Hayward broke his ankle in one of the most gruesome injuries in recent NBA history less than halfway through the first quarter. He was carted off the floor as the arena sat in stunned silence. Neither team was the same the rest of the way.

The Cavaliers weren’t at their sharpest – relinquishing an 18-point second-half lead before rallying late for the 102-99 win. Beginning his 15th season, LeBron James led both teams with 29 points and 16 boards – going 12-of-19 from the floor, adding a team-high nine assists and a pair of blocked shots.

Kyrie Irving, making his Celtics debut after demanding an offseason trade, was roundly booed during pregame introductions and every time he touched the ball. Irving scored 10 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter – leading both teams with 10 assists. Sophomore Jaylen Brown led the Celtics with 25 points.

JANUARY 3: After making his eagerly-anticipated debut for the Cavaliers the previous night in a win over Portland at The Q, Isaiah Thomas – still nursing his hip back to health – got the night off against his former squad at the TD Garden.

In a preview of how things would go for much of the remainder of the month, the Cavaliers came out flat – falling behind by double-digits after one quarter and trailing the rest of the way. LeBron and JR Smith both notched double-figures, but the rest of Cleveland’s starters were a combined 5-for-27 from the floor in the lopsided 102-88 defeat.

The Cavs would proceed to lose three of their next four on that road trip – and nine of their next 15 games – before pulling off a season-altering series of deals that sent Thomas packing for Cali and Jae Crowder to Utah.

FEBRUARY 11: After blowing out Atlanta to start a three-game trip before the All-Star Break, the Cavaliers unveiled their newly-minted members acquired in a Deadline deal on a Sunday afternoon in Boston – and their impact was immediate.

The Wine & Gold looked reborn in that matinee – throttling Irving and the Celtics, 121-99, to take the season series. Jordan Clarkson led the second unit with 17 points, Rodney Hood was right behind with 15 points, adding three boards and a block. Larry Nance Jr. was active and aggressive in his 21-minute debut, finishing with five points, four boards, three assists and a steal.

After a back-and-forth first period, it was all Cleveland from there – as the new-look Cavs outscored Boston, 90-67, over the next three quarters. The only drama remaining over the final 12 minutes was how many fans would be able to stomach the blowout before celebrating Pierce’s postgame ceremony.

2. After falling to Cleveland in the season opener, the Celtics proceeded to win 33 of their next 42 games – and that propelled them to the top of the Conference, buying them enough breathing room to secure the 2nd seed even after Kyrie Irving went down with a season-ending knee injury on March 11.

That seeding gives Boston homecourt advantage – and they’ll try to utilize that on Sunday in the only afternoon game of the ECF – tipping off at 3:30 at TD Garden. Game 2 goes down on Tuesday night (5/15) at 8:30 – game time for each of the remaining six contests.

After a nice three-day travel break, the series shifts back to Cleveland for Game 3 on Saturday (5/19) and Game 4 on Monday night (5/21) at The Q. From there, it’s every other day – with Game 5 back in Beantown next Wednesday (5/23), Game 6 here in The Land on Friday (5/25) and Game 7 back on the parquet floor next Sunday (5/27), if necessary.

The first team to four wins tips off against the Western Conference Champs on Thursday, May 31.

The Cavs and Celtics have squared off 39 times heading into Sunday’s contest – holding a 13-6 record at home, a 7-13 mark in Beantown adding up to a 20-19 record overall.

Cavaliers All-Time Postseason Records

3. The Cavaliers have had some recent history against their previous two Playoff foes.

They’ve squared off against Indiana in back-to-back seasons after not meeting the Pacers in the Playoffs since Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ rookie campaign. It’s been three straight postseason meetings against the Raptors – unfortunately for them – after never facing off against Toronto in the Playoffs before LeBron’s return back in 2015.

But the Wine & Gold have a long, bitter history against the Celtics – meeting Boston in now seven previous postseason series (1976, 1985, 1992, 2008, 2010, 2015 and 2017). The Cavs and Celtics have squared off 39 times heading into Sunday’s contest – holding a 13-6 record at home, a 7-13 mark in Beantown adding up to a 20-19 record overall.

Boston halted Cleveland’s “Miracle of Richfield” run in 1976, falling to the Celtics (who would go on to win the NBA title) after dropping the Washington Bullets in seven games.

In 1985, Boston stopped George Karl’s Comeback Cavs – who began the season 2-19 and eventually reached the Playoffs – where they faced off against the reigning Champion Celtics – falling 2-1 in a hard-fought First Round series.

When the Cavaliers faced the Celts in the 1992 Playoffs, it was the Cavaliers’ turn to put an end to something – dropping Boston in seven games, the final contest which took place exactly 25 years ago as Cleveland knocked the Celtics out of the Playoffs in the last game of Larry Bird’s illustrious career.

One year after reaching their first NBA Finals, the Cavaliers beat a stubborn Wizards team in six games to face Boston in the Second Round back in 2008. The Cavaliers took all three home games in the series, but – in a classic Game 7 duel between LeBron James and Paul Pierce – the Celtics held off Cleveland, eventually winning the title over the Lakers in six.

In 2010, the Wine & Gold took a 2-1 lead over Boston in their Eastern Conference Semifinal series, but the Celtics won the final three games of the series to take down the favored Cavaliers and (temporarily) put an end to an iconic era of Cavs basketball.

By the time Cleveland faced the Celtics in the postseason next, LeBron was back in a Cavaliers uniform and – despite the Cavs losing Kevin Love for the Playoffs after suffering a shoulder injury in Game 4 – the Wine & Gold made short work of the C’s, sweeping them out of the Playoffs in four games.

Last year, the Cavaliers took the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals – demolishing Boston by 44 points in Game 2 before being stung by three, 111-108, in the first game back at The Q. Boston lost Isaiah Thomas to a hip injury for the remainder of the series, which the Wine & Gold won handily – beating Boston by 13 points in Game 4 in Cleveland before demolishing Brad Stevens’ squad by 33 points in Game 5 to punch their ticket to a third straight Finals appearance.