The NBA Eastern and Western Conference Finals are set and ready to begin. The Conference Finals kicks off on in the East on Sunday at 3:30 EST with the Cleveland Cavaliers taking on the Boston Celtics and in the West on Monday at 9:00 EST with the much-hyped matchup of the Houston Rockets taking on the Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately, no former Kentucky Wildcats are on any of the four rosters, but there is still a lot of thrilling basketball ahead of us.
Let’s get right into previewing the Eastern Conference Finals including a prediction.
Eastern Conference Finals
(4) Cleveland Cavaliers (8-3 record in playoffs: Defeated IND 4-3; Defeated TOR 4-0)
- Offensive rating during playoffs: 110.0 (3rd out of 16)
- Defensive rating during playoffs: 108.4 (10th out of 16)
The Cleveland Cavaliers limped their way through the first round of the playoffs after creeping by a talented and pesky Indiana Pacers team, then decimated the Toronto Raptors in the same playoff manner they’ve done the two previous seasons. The Raptors have been infamous for completely collapsing when the playoffs begin and this season was no different, ultimately leading to the firing of former Kentucky player Dwane Casey from his head coaching job. The Boston Celtics pose a much more challenging matchup for the Cavaliers, similar to how the Pacers played them in round one.
The Celtics, like the Pacers, can throw aggressive defensive schemes at the Cavaliers as they’ll try to disrupt LeBron James and the Cavs prolific offense. The Raptors struggled to blitz the Cavs and didn’t have enough defensive options to throw at LeBron. The Celtics will be a different story. While players such as Marcus Morris, Jaylen Brown, and even Semi Ojeleye aren’t exactly LeBron stoppers, they’ll be better options than Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby – who Toronto tried and failed to use.
The Cavaliers steamrolled the Raptors by surrounding LeBron with four shooters and letting him go to work. That’s what they did in round one against the Pacers and that’s how they ran the majority of their offense during the regular season, as well. This series should be no different. The Cavaliers love to employ constant pick-and-roll action with LeBron as the ball handler and a bevy of different pop/roll men such as George Hill, Kyle Korver, or Kevin Love. The defense has several options to guard this action, but no set in stone answer. The Celtics can choose to switch, which gives LeBron a one-on-one mismatch. They can deny the switch and double-team LeBron, opening up an easy pop shot for the roll man. Or they can deny the switch and give LeBron leverage going towards the basket. How Brad Stevens decides to defend this action will be the most interesting aspect of this series. The Pacers couldn’t stop it. The Raptors really couldn’t stop it. The Celtics will have to stop it if they want to win this series.
The key to a fourth straight finals appearance for the Cleveland Cavaliers is going to be Kevin Love and the role players. LeBron is going to get his points and create the majority of the offense, that’s a fact at this point in the season. But a lot of what LeBron has done this season is based around setting his teammates up for open looks. His teammates weren’t hitting those shots with regular consistency against the Pacers, but they sure as hell did against the Raptors. If Love can be as aggressive against Al Horford and Marcus Morris as he was against Serge Ibaka, having him putting up 20 points and 10 rebounds per game should mean the Cavs are coasting. When guys like Korver, J.R. Smith, and even Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson (although Hood and Clarkson have been nothing short of awful through the first two rounds) are knocking down open shots, there isn’t much any defense can do to stop the Cavs.
(2) Boston Celtics (8-4 record in playoffs: Defeated MIL 4-3; Defeated PHI 4-1)
- Offensive rating during playoffs: 106.9 (7th out of 16)
- Defensive rating during playoffs: 105.8 (7th out of 16)
The Boston Celtics needed seven games to knock out a.. weird… Milwaukee Bucks team in round one, but did so en route to an impressive dismantling of a young and promising Philadelphia 76ers team in round two. Without Kyrie Irving (and Gordon Hayward), the Celtics were desperate for offense going into the playoffs and they’ve found some great fillers in their young gunners. Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier have averaged 18.8 and 18.2 points per game, respectively, during their 12 playoff appearances. Rozier has gone through the whole Eric Bledsoe ordeal in round one and continued it into round two with the Drew Bledsoe jersey, but all while playing excellent basketball for someone who was somewhat unexpectedly thrown into the starting role of a number two seed. Tatum, especially, has looked impressive. Not just impressive for a rookie, but he’s been one of the better players in the entire playoffs. He’s an already elite-level scorer with the ability to put up a ton of points in a hurry. He knows how to get to his spot better than any of his fellow rookies and the Celtics will look to him to bring at least 15 points per game.
Al Horford has been the rock for the Celtics on both offense and defense all season and the playoffs have been no different. Averaging 17.0 points and 8.7 rebounds per game during the playoffs, Horford has also been the Celtics best defender. He has a strange history of struggling against the Cavaliers – especially against Tristan Thompson – so him making an impact early in the series will be important for maintaining a rhythm.
The return of Marcus Smart from injury in round one has proved to be critical to the team’s overall success. Smart, who is better at running the offense than Rozier, has been able to relieve some of the ball-handling stress from his fellow backcourt teammate. Smart’s defense on George Hill will be something to keep an eye on, as Hill loves to run pick-and-roll sets as both the ball handler and roll man.
The Celtics have struggled for points all season and that became even more apparent once Irving was sidelined with an injury, but the recent streaks from Rozier and Tatum have made things a bit more optimistic. If they can continue their high-level scoring exhibition into the Conference Finals, it’s going to put even more pressure on Cleveland to score against an elite Boston defense.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 6
For the Celtics to win, they need to find an answer to LeBron James. Marcus Morris or whoever the Celtics throw out on him will not get the job done, so don’t try to talk yourself into the idea that he can. It’s going to take a mixup of double teams, constantly switching whoever is primarily guarding him, and hope that the “other” Cavs are off their game from the perimeter. Even then, it still may not be enough. Kevin Love and the rest of the Cavs role players refound their momentum in round two and if it continues into round three, the Celtics simply won’t be able to keep up with the scoring of Cleveland.
Stay tuned for the Golden State Warriors-Houston Rockets preview, but in the meantime, follow me on Twitter: @ZackGeoghegan