For the third straight season the Cleveland Cavaliers have advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. The No. 2 seed Cavs will travel to Beantown on Wednesday to play the top seeded Boston Celtics. With only four teams remaining in the NBA bracket, the odds of The Trilogy1 grow ever higher. Before tipoff in the Garden let’s preview the upcoming conference finals.
This season the Celtics went 53-29, won the Atlantic Division, and finished two games ahead of Cleveland for the top seed in the East. In the opening round the C’s dropped jaws when they lost their first two home games to No. 8 Chicago. Despite the 2-0 hole Boston rallied to win the next four games and knock off the upstart Bulls. Washington came calling in the conference semifinals. The Wizards and Celts split the first four games, Boston took Game 5, and Washington’s John Wall saved the Wiz in a last second Game 6 three-pointer. Game 7 brought a back-and-forth affair that turned on an 18-3 Boston run late in the third. Canadian forward Kelly Olynyk chipped in 26 points (more on him in a moment) as Boston took a 115-105 victory. Head Coach Brad Stevens has developed a solid team that plays well together and despite lacking a bonified superstar they can cause problems for any team in the league.
Boston’s game begins and ends with Isiah Thomas. A 5-9 point guard from Washington, Thomas was the 60th pick in the 2011 Draft and joined Boston in 2015. During the regular season Thomas averaged 28.9 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game. During Game 2 of the semis he dropped 53 points on Washington in single-handedly delivering a win to the Celts. He should not under any circumstances be underestimated based on his size.
Boston and Cleveland met four times during the regular season with the Cavs winning three contests. The most recent game came in early April as the Wine and Gold slouched toward the postseason. In a surprising blowout LeBron and the James gang stomped the host Celtics 114-91. With both teams playing at full strength the game should provide some confidence to Coach Ty Lue and the team in preparation for the Conference Finals.
The C’s and Cavs are well acquainted in the art of playoff basketball. Herein lies a quick breakdown of their previous clashes.
1976 Eastern Conference Finals: Celtics def. Cavaliers 4-2
- After the Cavaliers’ Miracle win over the Bullets, the team’s title hopes died at the (broken) foot of Nate Thurmond. Cleveland could not sustain their run against the eventual champion Celtics.
1985 Eastern Conference First Round: Celtics def. Cavaliers 3-1
- In 1985 the Cavs snuck into the playoffs with a 36-46 record. Despite playing as an 8-seed they gave Boston a fight with only 14 points total separating the teams over the whole series.
1992 Eastern Conference Semifinals: Cavaliers def. Celtics 4-3
- Cleveland finally took her revenge in 1992. Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, and the Blue and Orange helped drop the curtain on Larry Bird’s career during a classic seven game series.
2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals: Celtics def. Cavaliers 4-3
- It just wasn’t the Cavs’ year. The home team won every game of the series and four games took place in Massachusetts.
2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals: Celtics def. Cavaliers 4-2
- Game 5 of this series served as a turning point in Cavaliers history. Rajon Rondo and the Greenies mauled the Cavs in their own house 120-88. As LeBron James left the court he took off his jersey. He would wear “Cavaliers” across his chest in Ohio again for nearly four years.
2015 Eastern Conference First Round: Cavaliers def. Celtics 4-0
- James’ return to Cleveland began with a four game sweep of Boston. What should have been a triumphant Game 4 in Boston was marred when Kelly Olynyk with malice and hooliganism dragged Cleveland’s Kevin Love away from the play injuring his shoulder. Love would miss the rest of the postseason and forever cast a shadow over the 2015 Finals. There’s a decent chance Cavs fans will remind him of this moment when the scene shifts to the Q.
Overall, Celtics lead in series 4-2, in games 18-16.
By the time Game 1 arrives on Wednesday the Cavs will have had enjoyed nine days off. Rest has served the Cavaliers will over the past few seasons. After both sweeps in last season’s playoffs and this year’s sweep of Indiana, Cleveland has taken Game 1 of the subsequent series. The Wine and Gold have won eight straight playoff games, eleven going back to last season. In the playoffs Cleveland is averaging 114.5 points per game while allowing 104.9 points per game. The defense, a sore subject during much of the regular season, picked up mightily against the Raptors; in Game 3 Toronto was held to only 94 points.
The playoffs so far have reinforced the fact that LeBron James is the best active basketball player in the world. The King is averaging 34.4 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 7.1 assists per game. He is playing inspired defense. He is sipping Great Lakes. He is shooting left handed. He is having a type of fun that none of us will ever experience. The rest of the team is pretty good too.
College football teams always talk about the trap game. It’s easy to overlook Illinois when Penn State is coming up the following week. If you take a win for granted you’ll look up to find Illini taking a halftime lead. In other words, everyone wants to fast forward to a Finals rubbermatch with the Golden State Warriors. That would be a mistake. Boston is a quality team. They have home court advantage. They are full of young players who fully believe they have what it takes to represent the East. It is also worth noting that the Celts will have the first pick in this season’s NBA Draft. That means a good, young team will soon be adding another quality young player. Cleveland should not take their contention window for granted. Luckily, James and a locker room full of veterans should keep anyone from researching restaurants in San Francisco. The win streak may end, but Cleveland has the talent and pedigree to win the series. Again, predictions are silly, but I’ll still take Cavs in 5.
- The league’s first ever NBA Finals to feature the same pairing three years in a row. [↩]