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The Boston Celtics know nobody expects them to make the NBA Finals. Their Eastern Conference finals opponents are the defending-champion Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, who haven’t played in more than a week and haven’t lost in more than a month. The Cavaliers paced themselves through the regular season and have found another gear in the playoffs. The Celtics earned the No. 1 seed, in large part, because they always play hard and coach Brad Stevens looks to exploit every possible edge.
Boston would take more than one game. It is a massive underdog despite owning home-court advantage, and the last time these two played, Cleveland was down a starter and won 114-91.
For the second straight postseason, the Cavaliers have stormed through the East with incredible shooting. Last year, they shot 77 of 152 from deep in four games against the Atlanta Hawks. This time, they shot 61 of 131 in four games against Toronto. While these numbers seem unsustainable, they are no fluke. Cleveland is an even better shooting team on paper this season because of the addition of Kyle Korver, and James has shot 46.8 percent from deep in the playoffs.
If the Cavs shoot like that, they are almost unbeatable. It’s hard for most teams to even generate the number of 3-pointers they do, let alone make them at a similar clip. But Boston is not ordinary in this respect. It has attempted 34.9 3-pointers per game during the playoffs — even more than Cleveland — and made 37.4 percent, 40.9 percent vs. Washington.
The Celtics are going to have a tough time closing out to the Cavs’ sharpshooters, just like everybody else. If they are to have a chance, they need to make Cleveland do the same thing. Stevens will make sure the floor is spaced, but the players still have to knock the shots down. It would help if Al Horford continued to make 58.3 percent of his 3s, as he did in the first two rounds.
Boston has to make the Cavaliers look like the poor defensive team they were most of the season. This is best accomplished by involving Irving and Kevin Love in as many pick-and-rolls as possible. Thomas and Horford have great chemistry running the high pick-and-roll, and they’re usually surrounded by shooters so they can do this in space. If the Cavs elect to send multiple defenders at Thomas, then the Celtics must move the ball and use that strategy against them.
It’s not just about targeting Love and, say, Channing Frye. Even though Tristan Thompson is good at switching onto smaller players, drawing him away from the basket can create scoring opportunities inside. Boston needs to force Cleveland to continually make decisions, and the best way to do that is to keep the ball moving. No team in the playoffs averages more passes, assists or potential assists, per NBA.com’s SportVU statistics.
The Cavs were the worst team in the league in the regular season when it came to transition defense, and while they’ve been much better during the playoffs, Boston stilll should try to exploit it. The Celtics don’t force a ton of turnovers, but think about the energy and desperation they showed in Game 5 against the Wizards. They need more of that; if there are opportunities to push the pace and get easy baskets, they have to take advantage of them.
The top two teams in the Eastern Conference meet when the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers square off for conference supremacy and a spot in the NBA Finals.
Boston advanced to the Eastern Conference finals after defeating the Washington Wizards in seven games, following a 4-2 first-round ousting of the Chicago Bulls.
Cleveland, the defending conference and NBA champs, have been patiently awaiting their opponent after sweeping the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors in the first and second rounds.
The Cavaliers took the regular-season series 3-1 over the Celtics.
Full series schedule:
Game 1 – Wednesday, May 17: Cleveland at Boston, 5:30 p.m. PT/8:30 p.m. ET on TNT/ESPN
Game 2 – Friday, May 19: Cleveland at Boston, 5:30 p.m. PT/8:30 p.m. ET on TNT/ESPN
Game 3 – Sunday, May 21: Boston at Cleveland, 5:30 p.m. PT/8:30 p.m. ET on TNT/ESPN
Game 4 – Tuesday, May 23: Boston at Cleveland, 5:30 p.m. PT/8:30 p.m. ET on TNT/ESPN
Game 5 – Thursday, May 25: Cleveland at Boston, 5:30 p.m. PT/8:30 p.m. ET on TNT/ESPN
Game 6 – Saturday, May 27: Boston at Cleveland, 5:30 p.m. PT/8:30 p.m. ET on TNT/ESPN
Game 7 – Monday, May 29: Cleveland at Boston, 5:30 p.m. PT/8:30 p.m. ET on TNT/ESPN