Series Preview: Celtics vs. Cavaliers
BOSTON – The name of the series may have changed, but the participants haven’t.
The Eastern Finals, formerly known as the Eastern Conference Finals, will feature a rematch this season between the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Game 1 will tip off at 3:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon.
Cleveland won last year’s Eastern Conference Finals by a count of 4-1. However, each team looks drastically different this time around than it did last postseason.
Boston has been forced to rely on youth after two of its All-Stars, Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, were lost for the season due to injury. Its starting five now includes three players – Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – who are 24 years old or younger.
The Cavaliers still revolve around LeBron James, but the players who flank him have turned over. Only four of James’ teammates – Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson – return from last season’s roster. Four other players – Jordan Clarkson, George Hill, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr. – just joined the team at the February trade deadline.
Here’s how the new rosters stack up.
Head Coaches – Brad Stevens vs. Tyronn Lue
This matchup is intriguing because it can be viewed from two different angles: results or perception.
From a results standpoint, Tyronn Lue is well ahead of Brad Stevens. Lue has a career 37-13 (.740 win percentage) record during the postseason and led the Cavs to the 2016 NBA title.
Stevens, meanwhile, enters the Eastern Finals with a 19-21 record, but he is widely perceived as one of the – if not the - best coach in the NBA. Stevens gets the best out of his players and is masterful with his rotations and game plans.
Point Guards – Terry Rozier vs. George Hill
“Scary Terry” Rozier burst onto the scene during the postseason. While filling in for Irving this postseason, Rozier has averaged 18.2 points, 5.7 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game. He was great against Cleveland this season while he was coming off the bench. He totaled 20 points, four rebounds and three assists during a win on Jan. 3, and then 21 points, nine rebounds and five assists during a loss on Feb. 11.
Hill, who was acquired at the trade deadline from the Sacramento Kings, has been efficient for Cleveland during the postseason. He has made 53.1 percent of his shots, with most of them coming from inside the arc. He carries postseason averages of 9.8 points, 2.5 assists and 2.1 rebounds per game into the series. Cleveland will rely on his defense to slow down Rozier.
Shooting Guards – Jaylen Brown vs. J.R. Smith
Brown has had a rollercoaster playoff ride. He scored 30 or more points twice during the first round, but then suffered a right hamstring injury during the seventh game of that series. He missed Game 1 of the second round, and he has slowly recovered to full strength from there.
Brown told Celtics.com Friday afternoon that his hamstring feels much better, and that he does not anticipate having any minute restrictions heading into the Eastern Finals. The 21-year-old wing is averaging 16.9 PPG during the postseason.
While Brown is known for his scoring ability and for his high-level defense, Smith is known much more for one thing: shooting. About 65 percent of Smith’s shots are taken from beyond the 3-point line. He heated up during Cleveland’s last series against Toronto, during which he scored at least 15 points during three of the four games.
Small Forwards – Jayson Tatum vs. Kyle Korver
Rookie versus vet. This one should be fun.
Tatum has taken the NBA by storm during the postseason, becoming the youngest player ever to score at least 20 points in seven straight games. He is averaging 18.8 PPG overall during the postseason. He is scoring at a high level despite shooting only 31.1 percent from long distance during the Playoffs.
Korver, meanwhile, is very similar to Smith in the vein that he is an elite 3-point shooter – maybe the best of all time. More than 80 percent of his shot attempts this postseason have been 3s, and he has made 46.2 percent of those 3-point attempts.
Tatum is well-versed in challenging catch-and-shoot 3s following a series against Philadelphia. Boston will also likely do everything it can to go through Tatum and to take advantage of Korver’s suspect defense.
Power Forwards – Al Horford vs. LeBron James
Cleveland clearly has the advantage at this position, as James is unquestionably one of the top players in the history of the game who is playing some of the best basketball of his career. James enters the series averaging a league-best 34.3 PPG, and he always affects the game with his passing, rebounding and timely defense.
Horford, meanwhile, has been Boston’s rock during the Playoffs. He is a versatile big who has defended Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid at a high level, all while producing 17.0 PPG and 8.7 RPG.
It is very possible that the Celtics will slide Horford over to center and start Marcus Morris at power forward to match up with James.
Centers – Aron Baynes vs. Kevin Love
Baynes may be bumped from the starting lineup, but the Celtics have not revealed such a decision. So we are operating under the assumption that Baynes will remain the starter.
Baynes was the league’s leader in defensive rating during the regular season among top rotational players. He is an elite rim protector and is more agile than one would think. Surprisingly, he also became a 3-point marksman during the last series, when he hit seven 3s in five games. He enters the series with the highest 3-point percentage in the Playoffs among remaining players (minimum 10 attempts) with a mark of 47.4 percent.
Love, meanwhile, has also been a marksman from downtown. He has made 38.5 percent of his 3-pointers this postseason, including six during the Conference Semifinals against Toronto. Love is an elite post player and 3-point shooter who the Celtics will always need to keep on their radar. He is not a great defensive player, however, so Boston may look to exploit that.
Cleveland may have an advantage when it comes to bench units simply due to Boston’s injury woes. As was aforementioned, Irving and Hayward are lost for the season, and so is Daniel Theis. Stevens also revealed Saturday that it’s unlikely that Shane Larkin will play in this series either after he suffered a sprained left shoulder during Game 4 against Philadelphia.
That leaves Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart as Boston’s top two reserves, and the only other bench players who have been in the playoff rotation are Greg Monroe and rookie Semi Ojeleye. Monroe could very well see more time in this series than he did against Philadelphia, while Ojeleye will surely be an option to defend James.
Cleveland’s bench is deep thanks to its flurry of deadline deals at the start of February. From a scoring perspective, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Jeff Green stand out. All three are capable of catching fire. Along the frontline, Green, Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. are all versatile options. Green, Thompson and Nance. Jr. are all quality defenders as well.