Gentlemen, start your sarcophagi.
That’s what it feels like, anyway, summoning the Cleveland Cavaliers from their extended slumber in the tombs of northeast Ohio to finally engage in the Eastern Conference finals. By the time LeBron James and the rest of the Cavs take the court for Game 1 (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT) of the series that will determine the conference’s Finals representatives, they will have been idle for nine days. And since Boston snagged the East’s No. 1 seed, Quicken Loans Arena will have gone dark to Cavs home games for 17 days in what normally is the busiest month of the NBA playoffs.
Divvying up a postseason traditionally thought of as a two-month slog to 16 victories into individual four-game sprints has worked well for the Cavs in the past; the gaps between series last spring kept them healthy and fresh, with enough left in the tank to overcome their 3-1 deficit against Golden State in The Finals.
The potential downside, of course, is rust, but that’s a risk James and his teammates have been willing to take. They are a savvy, older team that knows its way around home-court advantages, road challenges, the rhythm of a best-of-seven and, even when less than overwhelming, pouncing on the pivot points in winnable games.
The Celtics, by contrast, are the youngest No. 1 seed in recent memory, perhaps ever, with a collective age of 26.0. They have spent their 13 games over the past four weeks getting better, gaining experience and honing their playoff chops in ways not apparent from their 8-5 record. Both they and the fans at TD Garden are rolling off the Game 7 victory against the Washington Wizards. That’s not to say folks at The Q won’t be ready — assuming they still know how to find the arena.
3 quick questions and answers
How much is Boston’s homecourt advantage worth? Depends on how you frame it. Starting the series at home, having four games in friendly confines rather than three and knowing that a decisive Game 7 would be on your favorite parquet hardwood all are niceties on the Celtics’ side of the table. All Cleveland has to do, though, is take Game 1 and the whole thing shifts. Game 7? It might not even last that long. For the record, Boston was pretty good on the road (23-18) this season and even better at home (30-11), upping their points per game by 3.0 at the Garden. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, were sub-.500 on the road (20-21) and went from outscoring foes by 8.1 points to getting outscored by 1.8 away from The Q.
Who guards LeBron? It’s the eternal question, only it’s more critical now because James is having a postseason for the ages. When a guy is averaging 34.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 7.1 apg while shooting 55.7 percent overall and 46.8 percent on 3-pointers, “guarding” him would seem a lofty ambition. Hanging on for dear life would be more like it. Of course, the Celtics will try to slow Cleveland’s locomotive, with Jae Crowder the best-equipped physically to bang around for long minutes. Marcus Smart certainly has the grit to try, Gerald Green might come closest athletically and any variety or combo of Boston defenders could draw the unenviable duty at times. But James and the Cavs will have something to say about it, too, based on the way he managed to find Indiana’s poor Jeff Teague time and again through pick-and-roll switches. Isaiah Thomas will want no part of this.
Who are the possible “X” factors? Thomas averaged 29.5 points against Cleveland in the regular season and his team still dropped three of four matchups. Avery Bradley has had a hot hand lately, but he will have that hand and the others full chasing around Kyrie Irving. So, where can Celtics fans turn? Why, to Kelly Olynyk, silly. The Man-Bun had an improbably 26 points off the bench in the clincher over Washington, with a 14-0 scoring edge over Wizards star John Wall in the fourth quarter. With the series starting in Boston, Olynyk’s folk-hero status could continue to rise — along with his villain status in Cleveland for people who remember his rasslin’ arm bar vs. Kevin Love in Round 1 two years ago. For Cleveland, Tristan Thompson is the guy who might wear out the Celtics in the paint. In the last two playoff series in which the Cavaliers’ relentless offensive rebounder battled Al Horford, Thompson had an 88-33 edge on the boards.
The number to know
70.7 percent — Through the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Cavs have an effective field goal percentage of 70.7 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers, the best mark (by a wide margin) in the playoffs. The Cavs have taken 59.3 percent of their shots from outside the paint, also the highest rate in the playoffs. And why not? Three is greater than two and the Cavs have eight of the 53 active players that have at least 700 career 3-pointers and have shot at least 35 percent from beyond the arc. James isn’t one of those eight, but he averaged an NBA record 4.8 assists on 3-pointers in the regular season and is shooting 47 percent on threes in the playoffs himself. When James is shooting well from the perimeter, a pick-your-poison situation — don’t help on James or leave shooters open – becomes even more difficult for opposing defenses. The Celtics rank third defensively in the playoffs, but no team scored more efficiently against Boston in the regular season than the Cavs did. If Boston is going to have a chance in this series, it will need to keep up offensively, or hope that the Cavs’ shooters cool off. — John Schuhmann
Making the pick
Boston has talent and a burgeoning confidence in winning eight of 11 games since its 0-2 start against Chicago. Thomas is enough of a novelty player that he could go off and grab a game or two almost by himself. And if the Celtics can play with pace and force enough misses, they could exploit Cleveland’s creaky transition defense. Nonetheless, the Cavaliers have been spa-ing while the Celtics were sparing to the max against Washington. James and his guys score points in flurries and, unlike Boston, aren’t even close to their goal for this postseason. There will not be a 31st Game 7 in Celtics history this month. Cavaliers in 5.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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