After the grueling seven-game series against the Washington Wizards, the top-seeded Boston Celtics have earned the right to face off against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, starting on Wednesday. LeBron is seeking his seventh consecutive Finals appearance while the Celtics are looking to return to the NBA Finals for the first time since losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010. Here's a look at five of the biggest questions heading into the series.
1. Can Isaiah Thomas continue his magical playoff run?
Kevin love and Isaiah Thomas in high school. We get to see this matchup in the Eastern Conference Final. pic.twitter.com/pQCasqPn7j- Eric Fawcett (@Efawcett7) May 16, 2017
Per ESPN Stats & Info, in the first two rounds of these playoffs, Jeff Teague, Kyle Lowry and Paul George were 20-for-36 from the field with Kyrie Irving as their primary defender. In the playoffs, Thomas is averaging 25.4 points and 6.5 assists. In Boston's eight playoff wins, he is averaging 27.3 points and 7.5 assists. If the Celtics want a chance in this series, they will need Thomas to continue to put up superstar numbers in the Eastern Conference Finals. On the other end, per NBA.com, the Celtics are allowing 108.0 points per 100 possessions with Thomas on the floor in the playoffs, a mark that would rank them among the bottom ten among regular season teams.
With other defensive stalwarts on the floor alongside his point guard, Brad Stevens has been able to limit these defensive numbers from being a liability for Boston through the first two rounds, but it won't be as easy against a Cavs team that has three superstars and the ability to spread the floor with their shooters. In the same way that opposing players have exploited Irving on the defensive end, Irving can do the same against Thomas, and has averaged 23.8 points and 5.8 assists in the postseason so far. There's no way to stop or even contain LeBron when he is playing at this level, but winning the point guard matchup is critical if the Celtics want to have a shot in this series.
2. Will Cleveland's three-point shooting dominate?
Handling LeBron is a problem unto itself, but when the Cavaliers' three-point shooters are making shots, the team is impossible to match up against. The Raptors witnessed this up close in losing four straight to the Cavs in the second round, when Cleveland shot 46.6 percent from beyond the arc. It was reminiscent of last year's Eastern Conference Finals against Toronto, when Cleveland made 38.9 percent of their threes in a six-game series win.
In these playoffs, Channing Frye, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love and Iman Shumpert are all shooting over 40.0 percent from three, with Frye making 55.2 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc through the first two rounds. Adding to the problem is that LeBron is making 46.8 percent of his threes himself, essentially bullying opponents in the mid-range and low post but also operating like Steph Curry from beyond the arc. When he is on the floor with shooters, the Cavs have been unbeatable. The Celtics were third in the league this season with 12.0 threes made per game but were ranked 14th in three-point percentage, making 35.9 percent of their attempts. In the playoffs, they have shot 35.1 threes per game and made 37.3 percent of them through the first two rounds, numbers similar to Cleveland's. If the series turns into a shootout, the Celtics will need to match the Cavs from beyond the arc. If Cleveland is outscoring Boston by a significant margin from three, paired with LeBron's dominance, it will be a short series.
3. Can Boston's depth make a difference?
Marcus Smart wants Game 7. pic.twitter.com/Gf62Cz5J4I- Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 16, 2017
Thomas is the leading scorer for the Celtics, but the Cavaliers have more star power and are a more potent offensive team. Boston is built to succeed based on their depth across the board, and the ability for one of their many role players to play a significant role in this series. As Olynyk showed in Game 7 against the Wizards, he can be a threat from deep on top of the other little things he does to antagonize Boston's opponents. Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart are tenacious defenders, and could make things uncomfortable for LeBron and the Cavs. Jaylen Brown has provided valuable minutes off the bench during the playoff run. In Game 7 against Washington, the Celtics bench outscored the Wizards' unit 48-5.
The Cavs have a much more formidable bench than the Wizards, but Boston will need to make up the difference of what the Cavs trio of LeBron, Irving and Love bring to the table, and it will have to be a committee approach. That's been the issue for any opponent who has gone up against the Cavs over the past two seasons in the East. Anointed "LeBron stoppers" have had no luck in the playoffs, and teams playing the Cavs have not had much success overcoming Cleveland's dominant offense. Heading into the playoffs, Cleveland's second-to-last ranked defense in the second half of the regular season was a significant concern, but the Cavs have ramped up their attention to detail and level of intensity on that end of the floor, making that conversation moot. The Celtics will need to show that they are capable of making Cleveland uncomfortable on both ends of the floor to make this a series. The Raptors were a worthy candidate of doing that in the last round and were promptly swept. We're about to find up if Boston is up to the task.
4. Will the teams renew their rivalry from two postseasons ago?
In Game 4 of a first round sweep of the Celtics two years ago, Kelly Olynyk got tangled up with Kevin Love going for a loose ball, pulled his arm, and dislocated the Cavs' power forward's shoulder, forcing him to miss the rest of the postseason. The two sides have moved on, and Cleveland won its championship last season with a healthy roster, but seeing the fallout of the Zaza Pachulia-Kawhi Leonard incident from Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals this weekend, it's worthwhile to consider how the physicality of this series could become an impediment to Cleveland's quest for a second consecutive championship. The Cavs might have openly disrespected the Raptors in the second round, but even they won't speak publicly about how the East playoffs are essentially a prep course for the Finals. Yet, to get there and to give themselves the best chance at defending a title, they will need to stay healthy. The Celtics have several tenacious defenders in Crowder, Smart, Bradley and Olynyk who will put their limbs on the line for every 50-50 ball. The Cavs are looking for a short series, and hoping to get out of it with their full roster intact. This point will be worth keeping an eye, on especially if the series starts to get physical, which would play to Boston's advantage.
5. Will LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers be challenged in this series?
LeBron's dominance of the East has been well-documented. With a victory over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, he will advance to his seventh consecutive NBA Finals. Are the Celtics the team that will finally present a real challenge against LeBron in the East? The evidence would suggest no. During the regular season, Boston won 53 games and had a +3.1 net rating. Compare that to the last three teams LeBron has faced in the Eastern Conference Finals -- the 2014 Pacers won 56 games and had a +4.8 net rating and lost in six games; the 2015 Hawks won 60 games and had a +5.6 net rating and were swept; the 2016 Raptors won 56 games and had a +4.3 net rating and lost in six games. There's no denying that the Cavs are the best team in the East, and in a class of their own, and they've only reasserted their dominance through the first two rounds of these playoffs. This looks like another mismatch for the Cavs, and the Celtics are likely to find out early on that they're not in the same weight class as Cleveland. All season, we've waited for a Cleveland-Golden State rematch in the Finals. The Cavs appear focused on getting there, and in the quickest way possible.