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Eastern Conference Finals Preview: (1) Boston Celtics vs. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers

How they got here: The Cavs are coming off of two straight sweeps of the Indiana Pacers and the Toronto Raptors. They barely broke a sweat in their second round sweep of the Raptors, a team that had acquired PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka for the sole purposes of stopping LeBron James. You can’t stop LeBron James. The King has been on fire so far in the playoffs and the Cavs offense has been firing on all cylinders and been putting away the opposition with their three point shooting.

The top seeded Celtics beat the Chicago Bulls in six games before overcoming the Washington Wizards in a thrilling seven game series. Al Horford, Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas were excellent throughout but the real star in the series for Boston was their second unit which came through in a big way for the series win. In game seven, the Celtics second unit outscored the Wizards bench 48-5. The Celtics have used their depth and small line-ups to great success in both series.

How Boston can win: Boston is going to be facing an uphill battle this entire series. Despite being the higher seed and despite having home court advantage, they are massive underdogs against a Cavs team that has really been firing on all cylinders throughout the playoffs.

For the Celtics to even have a hope of winning this series, Al Horford is going to have to continue his the transcendent performance he put on against the Wizards in round two. Big Al shot 67.6% (!) against Washington included a ridiculous 60.9% from three point range. His passing and defense were equally impressive against the Wizards and there is absolutely no way that Boston would have won that series if not for how great Horford was. As inconceivable as it seems, he will need to be even better against the Cavs.

Boston is going to have to find a way to slow down the Cavs outstanding three point shooting. Cleveland outscored the Raptors 183-81 from three point range on their way to a four game sweep. The Raptors lacked anyone who could keep the pace and while the Celtics are better from three point range than Toronto was, they still lack the shooters that can keep up with Cleveland. Avery Bradley is going to have to neutralize either Kyrie Irving, JR Smith or even Deron Williams from deep. Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart are going to be in for a battle on the perimeter and you have to think that Brad Stevens will be looking to stick Kelly Olynyk on Kevin Love whenever possible – hopefully without the MMA shoulder breaking this time from Olynyk. In the interests of sportsmanship, I mean. Certainly there are a lot of Celtics fans who would love to see Olynyk’s finishing move again. Otherwise Boston will find themselves victims of the NBA math problem – answering 3s with 2s and will be out of this series quickly.

Speaking of Christ-like big man, Olynyk was able to take his game to brand new heights in game seven against Washington with a 26 point performance, including 14 in the fourth quarter, that pushed the Celtics to victory. It was the latest unlikely hero for Boston in a playoffs full of them so far. Gerald Green, Jae Crowder and Terry Rozier have all had huge games for the Celtics. All of them will have to come up big against the heavily favoured Cavaliers.

The Celtics are going to need their MVP and the best fourth quarter player in the NBA this season, Isaiah Thomas, to continue his meteoric rise this season against the Cavs. Thomas has averaged 25.6 points and 6.5 assists for the Celtics throughout these playoffs. He has continued to be the most clutch player in the fourth quarter in the entire NBA throughout these playoffs after doing so throughout the season. The trouble is that Cleveland is going to attack Boston through him as they have often been able to do to Steph Curry who is six inches taller than Thomas.

Brad Stevens is going to try to hide Thomas on D but the Cavs will adjust by having whoever IT is guard set screens for LeBron or Kyrie creating a mismatch that will absolutely punish the Celtics. The question will be how to balance the defensive mismatch with offensive opportunities it creates.

How Cleveland can win: The Cavs are going to win two big battles that will likely make this a relatively easy win for them.

The first is the aforementioned three point battle. Cleveland can hit threes with a frequency that no team this side of Golden State can match. JR Smith, Kyle Korver, Kyrie Irving, Deron Williams, Channing Frye, LeBron James and so on. This team is full of deep threats that will tax the Celtics ability to defend the long ball.

The second is the rebounding battle. The Celtics biggest weakness is their rebounding. Cleveland boasts Tristan Thompson who is averaging 12 boards a game and Kevin Love who is averaging 13. The Cavs have rebounded better against Boston than against any other team in the league – grabbing 54.1% of all available rebounds including 27.1% of their own misses. The opportunity for second chance points will be lethal to Boston.

Further compounding this problem will be that Boston’s offense works best small. When the Celtics go small, it will allow Thompson and Love to completely dominate them on the offensive glass and create a big mismatch on defense as they will undoubtedly have to double Kevin Love in the post. This could pose an even bigger problem if the Cavs respond with a small line-up, putting Love at centre and surrounding him with long range threats.

Of course, the biggest mismatch of all is LeBron James. The King is averaging 34.4 points, 9.0 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.5 blocks. His 55.7% field goal percentage and 46.8% from three point range are career playoff highs. He’s 32 years old in his 14th season and still at the height of his powers. Nobody has come close to stopping him these playoffs.

The Celtics will try Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley and even rookie Jaylen Brown on LeBron. I don’t see any of it working. The Cavs will run James on pick-and-rolls when Crowder is on him and get him into isolation when Bradley is on him. It just seems totally unfair that a rookie will be asked to guard him, but Brown will and LeBron just has too many tricks for him.

Who will win: Ultimately, Boston gives up way too much on the glass for it to be likely for them to take out the Cavs. Beyond that their optimal small line-up just gives Cleveland way too many advantages the other way.

I think Boston will play Cleveland tighter than the Pacers or Raptors were able to simply because of their far superior defense and the resiliency and grit of their team, but the Cavs just have too many weapons including the best player that I have ever seen in my life in LeBron James.

The Celtics can take solace in the fact that four years into a rebuild they finished the season as the top seed in the Eastern Conference and are in the Eastern Conference finals and thanks to Danny Ainge fleecing the Brooklyn Nets have the number one pick in the NBA draft and also have the Nets first round pick next year. And enough cap space to sign a max player this summer. They will be back and will be one of the top teams in the East for years to come.

Prediction: Cavaliers in five.