Series Preview: Celtics vs. Cavaliers

BOSTON – The Celtics and the Cavaliers are set to tip off Game 1 of their first-round playoff series at 3 p.m. this afternoon. Doesn’t this feel like the good old days?

Though many of the faces have changed since these teams met during the 2010 playoffs, this series still holds plenty of intrigue. Let’s dive into the matchups that we’ll watch over the next four to seven games.

The Coaches: Stevens vs. Blatt

Brad Stevens, in only his second season as an NBA head coach, has quickly earned the reputation as one of the best in the league. He is masterful at drawing up after-timeout plays and somehow managed to coach a rebuilding Celtics team to the seventh seed in the East.

David Blatt has been pretty darn good as well. Although the rookie head coach has been scrutinized throughout this season for taking a back seat to LeBron James’ voice, Blatt was the guy on the sideline who coached a brand-new team to 53 wins. That’s impressive, regardless of who’s on the roster.

That being said, it would be difficult to find anyone who wouldn’t give Stevens the upper hand in this coaching battle. Stevens will get his guys to compete and to execute at a high level, and he always has a magical play in his back pocket when the Celtics need one.

The Point Guards: Marcus Smart vs. Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving is one of the best playmakers in the game. He’s a layup machine, has crazy handles, and was very good from long distance this season (41.5 percent shooting). His all-around skill set allowed him to go for 55 or more points twice this season.

Defending Irving in the pick-and-roll is a nightmare, particularly when he’s surrounded by shooters and a big man like Timofey Mozgov who can roll hard to the rack. The Celtics have struggled to contain him in such situations in the past.

Boston counters with a rookie point guard in Marcus Smart, who has been remarkably consistent on defense despite an up-and-down offensive season. He averages 1.5 steals per game and is a bull to set a screen against. Don’t look for Smart to provide much offense, but expect him to be ferocious at the defensive end of the floor.

There’s no question that Irving has the advantage at this position. He is a dynamic scorer who can change a game all by himself. Still, though, expect Smart to handle his own and play well if he plays within himself.

The Shooting Guards: Avery Bradley vs. J.R. Smith

We all know that J.R. Smith can catch fire. But what else can he do?

Avery Bradley is an all-around player who can change a game with his defense and can also provide consistent scoring. He has been reliable all season long and is one of the Celtics’ top offensive options. However, they may need him to provide more defense than offense during this series.

Boston must keep a close eye on Smith, particularly from 3-point range. He has shot it at 39.0 percent during his 46 games with Cleveland and if he heats up, that presents a dangerous situation for the C’s.

Bradley, however, is the better all-around player in this matchup if he continues to shoot it well, which must be the case if Boston wants to compete in this series.

The Small Forwards: Evan Turner vs. LeBron James

This is no slight to Evan Turner, but this isn’t even a debate. James is by far the superior player in this matchup.

James, a four-time MVP who could easily take home a fifth trophy this season, has been outstanding during his first season back with Cleveland. He is a physical specimen who has improved his game at both ends each end every year. Boston cannot stop him, but it will do its best to contain him.

Turner will draw the defensive matchup with James to start each game. At 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds, Turner does not match up well with James from a physical standpoint. Boston’s swingman will, however, bring more positives than negatives to the table.

Turner has been extremely consistent this season. He flirts with a triple-double nearly every night, though he rarely racks up any eye-popping numbers. He’ll run Boston’s offense and make James work on defense, but James undoubtedly has the edge.

The Power Forwards: Brandon Bass vs. Kevin Love

Two very different players square off at the power forward position. Brandon Bass is known for his consistent midrange game, his defensive versatility and his ability to take the ball off of the dribble. Those skills translate well to playing against Kevin Love, who oftentimes is relegated to a 3-point shooter and rebounder in Cleveland's system.

Love is a much better offensive player than Bass and also has the edge in the rebounding department, but Bass’ game may bring Love out of his comfort zone. This is one matchup you’ll want to keep your eye on each night.

The Centers: Tyler Zeller vs. Timofey Mozgov

Many wondered what the Cavs were doing when they traded away two first-round picks for Timofey Mozgov. They aren’t wondering anymore.

Mozgov has been a stabilizing force in the paint at both ends for Cleveland. He’s a 7-foot-1 athletic big, which makes him difficult to stop when he rolls hard to the basket. He’s also a fairly strong shot blocker, having knocked away 1.2 shots per game during his 46 games with the Cavs this season.

Tyler Zeller is a rim-runner as well. He’s solid in pick-and-rolls and even better in transition. He can also step out to 18 feet and hit a jumper with consistency.

Mozgov is more of a difference-maker for his team than Zeller, but Zeller will provide solid minutes for Boston.

The Sixth Men: Isaiah Thomas vs. Tristan Thompson

These two teams have drastically different players as their sixth men. Isaiah Thomas is an electric scorer who has put 19.0 points per game on the board with Boston. Tristan Thompson is a quiet double-double guy who will never wow you but will always contribute in the box score.

If you’re looking for the guy who’s likely to impact this series more than the other, it’s undoubtedly Thomas. Thomas has been Boston’s best offensive player since he joined the C’s at the trade deadline. He will make Irving work at the defensive end and could draw some important fouls on Cleveland’s bigs. Thompson, meanwhile, will score some junk points and crash the glass.

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