Any lasting impressions from the Philadelphia series?
Greg Casoli: Jayson Tatum comes to mind. Boston’s long, lithe rookie was phenomenal scoring the ball. To be able to function as a team’s offensive focal point in such high-intensity moments at such a young age is truly impressive. Doing so with number one overall pick Markelle Fultz sitting on the sidelines for the Sixers only reinforced that feeling.
Plenty of people thought Tatum would develop into a special player over time, but hardly anyone imagined he’d be this good this soon. The way he’s grown his game throughout the year has allowed him to adapt to the postseason with aplomb. That the Celtics are picking up postseason wins behind his efforts is a reason for serious optimism.
Daniel Poarch: Brad Stevens is the truth. There’s so much to be said for all the ways Boston’s young talent rose to the occasion against the Sixers, but it was Stevens who laid the groundwork for their success — both in this series and across the entire season. He made all the right adjustments and had Brett Brown and the Sixers tied in knots. Nobody would have blamed the Celtics for bowing out early in the wake of all their injury issues, but under Stevens’ leadership, this team has been consistently one step ahead of their opponents all postseason long. He’s perhaps the biggest cause for optimism heading into the series with Cleveland.
Cory Prescott: Three things come to mind following Boston’s five-game defeat of Philadelphia:
- Experience matters. Yes, Jayson Tatum is only 20-years old and Jaylen Brown is only a year older, but they aren’t normal – plus Brown’s playoff experience from a year ago is paying off. Same with Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier, two young players who now have big games and big moments under their belts. The fourth quarter stats for Philadelphia and Boston in that series weren’t far off, but when it all came down in crunch time, the collective poise and experience from the Celtics won out.
- Despite the key injuries to Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Daniel Theis and now Shane Larkin, Brad Stevens has fostered a switch-happy, versatile defense that never takes plays off. Over the course of a series, that can truly weigh on the opposing team, as it did with the 76ers.
- If you have confetti, save it for one game and one game only.
How should the Celtics TRY and defend LeBron James?
Casoli: Assuming Cleveland sticks with Kevin Love starting at center, Boston should swap out Aron Baynes for Marcus Morris and assign him the dubious task of dealing with James. He’s got enough size and quickness to at least occasionally get in James’ way. Beyond that it’s not entirely clear what the Celtics should do.
The Cavs are going to run actions that force mismatches and eventually James is going to wind up with an advantageous opportunity to attack one-on-one, those typically end well for Cleveland. Send help and the ball will find a capable shooter for an open look. Opt not to do so, and risk surrendering oodles of points to the best player on the face of the Earth. Such is the bind that all of the Cavs’ opponents find themselves in. There’s a reason this team keeps making deep playoff runs.
The Celtics could play around with some funky super switchy lineups. Think something like Smart/Brown/Morris/Ojeleye/Horford. Such a unit could simply swap every single assignment on and off-ball and attempt to create an impenetrable shell around the basket. James would still find plenty of ways to make life miserable for that group, but if it throws Cleveland off its game even the slightest, it’s worth considering. Boston is going to need to junk this series up a bit if it wants a chance to win.
Poarch: Stevens has made a point of not overcommitting to any star player on the defensive end in these playoffs. LeBron is a much different beast than Giannis or Ben Simmons, but I feel like the fundamental idea might stay the same — keep LeBron in one-on-one coverage and accept that he’s going to get his numbers, but prevent his supporting cast from getting to their preferred looks. The Pacers pushed the Cavs to seven games by holding contributors like Kevin Love and J.R. Smith in check, after all… though, of course, LeBron still buried them in the end. Them’s the breaks when you face the greatest player of this generation.
Prescott: The keyword is TRY. Given that LeBron has accented into a pantheon of one of the all-time greats, it’s close to impossible to hold him in check – say the way the Celtics held Ben Simmons in check. What this year’s Celtics team can do as opposed to last season’s team is throw various looks at LeBron, particularly Marcus Morris (video courtesy of Tomasz Kordylewski). Morris has the ideal combination of speed and strength – not to mention the fearlessness – to hang with James. Throw in Tatum, Brown (hopefully healthy), Smart, Ojeleye, Horford and even Baynes when LeBron posts up, and the Celtics should be able to throw various looks at the King.
Give me on x-factor for each team
Cavs: Tristan Thompson has repeatedly broken the Celtics’ spirit in the playoffs. Boston hasn’t traditionally had the athletes to keep him off the offensive glass and Thompson as haunted Horford defensively. He’s fallen out of Cleveland’s rotation a bit this year, however, failing to play at the level the Cavs had grown accustom to. If he turns back the clock and dominates the Celtics the way he has in the past, Boston is in trouble.
Celtics: It doesn’t feel fair to put Jaylen Brown in this category given his recent hamstring injury, but how healthy he is could prove to be an enormous x-factor. He’s struggled to guard James in the past and won’t do any better if he’s only operating at 75% athleticism. Brown will still find ways to be a meaningful contributor, but the Celtics will miss the element of force he brings at full strength.
Celtics: For the Celtics, I’m going to say Marcus Morris. Morris is going to be a crucial piece of the puzzle when it comes to defending LeBron James, but the Celtics are going to need him to start hitting shots to justify his minutes. The offense has been too inconsistent for him to be wasting so many opportunities.
Cavs: On the flip side, the Cavaliers will need to get quality minutes from Tristan Thompson, who was largely invisible against the Raptors. The Cavs carved Toronto’s super-sized lineups to pieces by playing small, utilizing Love as essentially their only frontcourt player, but the Celtics are capable of going big without sacrificing their ability to defend those looks. If Thompson (or Larry Nance Jr.) can’t provide quality minutes as a second big, the Celtics might enjoy a rare advantage on the glass when Love sits.
Celtics: I’ll go down the line and say Semi Ojeleye. With only eight rotation players to work with now that Larkin is out (Monroe appears to be on the outs), the built-from-stone rookie could be cast in a number of different defensive assignments. I could see Stevens throw Ojeleye on everyone from Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson to George Hill and of course LeBron James.
Cavs: Tristan Thompson always kills the Celtics, especially on the glass, but he can be handled. Cleveland’s x-factor really comes down to Kevin Love and which version shows up. Love and Korver have been simpatico as off-ball screeners in LeBron’s grand scheme of playing in the post. If the Celtics can limit Love’s looks from both the post and beyond the arc, what other Cavalier player is going to be able to step up, score and relieve James?
Predictions for Cavs-Celtics
Casoli: I predicted that the Celtics would win this in seven games over at Celtics Wire and have been getting progressively more and more worried that LeBron is about to make me look awfully foolish. I’m told courage of conviction is important though, so I’ll stick to my guns and go with the same prediction here. It makes me feel like a major homer more than an objective analyst, but this Cleveland team isn’t as good as prior iterations and the Celtics have played well enough to make what may appear to be biased picks seem at least a bit more reasonable.
Poarch: Do I have to? Trying to predict this series seems like a recipe for embarrassment. These two teams have defied expectations all season long, in both good and bad ways, and I’m at a point where no outcome short of a Celtics sweep would surprise me. Ultimately, I think I’m leaning Cavs in six — the Celtics have struggled to consistently put points on the board this postseason, which makes it hard for me to imagine they’ll be able to keep pace with Cleveland’s high-octane offense. If there’s one thing these Celtics have proven, however, it’s that they can’t be written off. It’s entirely possible they keep this thing alive for another series.
Prescott: The Indiana Pacers probably should have advanced past the Cavaliers and the Toronto Raptors just fired their coach because of how he mishandled Toronto’s series against Cleveland. This year’s version of the Cavaliers is flawed, while this Celtics group has much more sustainability over last year’s team. This is going to be a drag-it-out Eastern Conference Finals showdown, one in which the Celtics will win in seven games.