Keys to the Game
Five Keys: Cavaliers at Celtics - Game 1
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
Key: Sunday Showdown in Beantown
After a seven-game knock-down-drag-out First Round against the Pacers, the Wine & Gold demoralized the Raptors in four games for the second straight season to end up back where they did one year ago – ready to take on the Boston Celtics for the Eastern Conference crown.
The paths might seem similar, but that’s about the only thing that this year’s run and last year’s have in common. Not only aren’t these the same teams from last spring’s Conference Finals, they’re barely the same squads that tipped off on opening night back in October.
The Cavaliers are fresh off dropping the No. 1 seed in the East for the third time in the last four years; the Celtics – playing without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward – beat the Bucks in seven games before bringing the young Sixers down to earth in five convincing contests.
This season, the Cavaliers took two of three against Boston – winning the opener, falling in Beantown during their January funk and returning to Boston fresh off a series of major trades to deliver a one-sided beat-down on Paul Pierce Day.
Cleveland demolished the Celtics at TD Garden in last year’s postseason as well, beating the Celtics in their gym by an average of 30.0 points per and averaging 120.4 points overall in the series.
Both squads have undergone major changes, but the rivalry that dates back to the 1976 postseason remains intact and renews on Mother’s Day in New England.
Key: Simply the Best
If you’re wondering what more LeBron James can do to blow your mind during the 2018 postseason, sit back for some fireworks as the four-time MVP squares off against the squad he loves to hate for the next two weeks.
On Sunday, Numeral 23 suits up for his 35th career Playoff contest against the Celtics – coming into the Game 1 with averages of 28.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 5.9 assists over that span.
Through the first two rounds of this year’s postseason run, LeBron leads everyone with a 34.3 ppg average, shooting 53 percent from the floor to go with 9.4 rebounds, 9.0 assists and 1.55 steals per through the first 11 games. The King – who’s piled up four 40-point games, eight double-doubles and two triple-doubles so far – has led Cleveland in both scoring and assists in an NBA-record 12 straight Playoff games dating back to last year.
Defensively, Brad Stevens will throw every combination of players and schemes that he can at the 14-time All-Star. But the best defense might be trying to keep him busy on the defensive end – trying to slow down sensational rookie Jayson Tatum – who’s having a postseason for the ages and isn’t even old enough to have a legal drink to enjoy it.
The former Duke star started the postseason by being just the third Celtics rookie to notch a double-double in his Playoff debut and hasn’t slowed down since – topping the 20-point plateau in eight of his last nine outings, including a 25-point performance in Boston’s Game 5 victory on Wednesday night.
The Cavs have held Tatum relatively in check in three games this year, averaging 14.5 points per in the first two contests and going just 4-of-11 in Cleveland’s one-sided win in Boston back in early February.
Key: Love Will Find a Way
It’s hard to imagine a Cavalier happier to see Indiana in the rearview mirror than Kevin Love – who got his groove back almost immediately after Cleveland vanquished the Pacers two Sundays ago.
He struggled offensively in Game 1 against Toronto, but still managed to grab a team-leading 17 rebounds in the victory. From there, Love looked again like a five-time All-Star, punishing the Raptors with 31 points in Game 2, doubling-up with 21 points and 16 boards in Game 3 and notching 23 points in just over 30 minutes of work in Cleveland’s blowout win to secure the sweep.
The 10th year veteran – who’s manned the middle for the Cavaliers through most of the campaign – averaged a double-double in the East Semis against Toronto and comes into the Conference Finals with some solid postseason history against the Celtics after having averaged 22.6 points and 12.4 boards in the five-game set against Boston one season ago, shooting 53 percent from long-range and 87 percent from the stripe in that series.
Love was nursing a broken hand in the third and final meeting during the regular season, posting two completely different games against Boston before that – doubling-up with 15 points and 11 rebounds in the season opener before going 1-of-11 from the floor in Cleveland’s early January loss at The Garden.
Love may line up against Aron Baynes in the starting lineup, but his dance card will be mainly occupied by Al Horford – who comes into the Conference Finals having an outstanding postseason, notching double-figures in all 12 contests and doubling-up in five of them.
Just as importantly, Horford has brought some vital postseason experience to a Celtics squad that’s still learning how to win when the calendar turns to May.
Key: Shooting Stars
The Cavaliers have a pair of All-Stars in their frontcourt who can do major damage around the rim. But when the Wine & Gold are at their best, their perimeter stars are hitting their shots consistently.
Cleveland’s dual sharpshooters couldn’t have been any more consistent than they were in the series clincher on Monday night at The Q – with Kyle Korver and JR Smith combining to go 12-of-14 from the floor, including 7-of-8 from beyond the arc.
It took both Korver and Swish a little time to find their postseason rhythm, but they both seem to be in a groove heading into the Conference Finals.
After going scoreless in two of Cleveland’s first three Playoff games, Korver tallied at least 16 points in three of the four games against Toronto – averaging 14.5 points per in the series, shooting 58 percent from the floor, including 56 percent (14-of-25) from long-range.
Smith went scoreless in Game 3 of the Toronto series and still managed to average 12.5 points per in the four-game sweep. The 14-year vet was outstanding on both ends against the Raptors – notching 20 points in the opener and finishing with 15 points in both Games 2 and 4 – going a perfect 6-of-6 from the floor, including 3-of-3 from deep, in the series finale.
Swish was also very good in all three meetings against Boston this season – registering double-figures in all three contests, shooting an even 70 percent from the floor and 60 percent (6-of-10) from three-point range.
Korver was one of the few Cavaliers to play well in their January 3 defeat in Beantown but had a pair of pedestrian outings in the other two meetings.
Key: Reserve Judgement
With both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward lost for the season, Brad Stevens was forced to go deeper into his bench for a postseason run – and just about every button that he’s pushed has worked to perfection.
Terry Rozier has been a revelation and Aron Baynes has been a solid stop-gap in the middle.
Impressive sophomore Jaylen Brown started all seven games in Boston’s opening round matchup against Milwaukee but came off the bench in all but one contest against Philadelphia (tallying 24 points on 10-for-13 shooting in that contest).
Marcus Smart got the other starts against the Sixers and produced with his usual blend of aggressiveness and productivity – notching double-figures in three of the five games in the series while keeping a lid on J.J. Redick over the final three games of the Semis.
Marcus Morris, who went 1-for-10 from the floor in that deciding Game 5 against Philly, will get a chance to put his money where his mouth is starting on Sunday – taking on LeBron James after giving the bear a slight poke in the media.
The Wine & Gold’s most consistent postseason performer off the bench has been Jeff Green – who’s tallied double-figures in four of Cleveland’s last six outings – including three of the four games against Toronto.
Aside from Tristan Thompson’s outstanding performance in Game 1 against Toronto, the Cavaliers haven’t gotten a ton from their bench so far in the Playoffs.
They’d love to get Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood going against Boston – especially after both of their performances against Boston in their Cavalier debuts. In that February 11 victory, Clarkson came off the bench to finish with 17 points, going 7-of-11 from the floor; Hood was right behind, tallying 15 points on 6-for-11 shooting.