After a thrilling Game 7 victory over the Washington Wizards, things are about to get a lot harder for the Boston Celtics. They have just one day of rest to prepare for the Eastern Conference Finals against the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, who have been sitting at home resting for over a week.
Cleveland will be heavily favored in the series after dispatching of the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors in four games apiece without ever stepping on the accelerator, saving for Game 3 against Indiana, which required a LeBron James-led comeback.
The persevering belief throughout NBA fandom has been that the playoffs are a mere formality as we barrel toward a third straight Finals between Cleveland and the Golden State Warriors. After Kawhi Leonard’s injury and the San Antonio Spurs’ subsequent loss in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, the Celtics may be the last hope for something different.
Certainly, if any team in the East had a chance of beating Cleveland at the start of the playoffs, it was Boston. It has home-court advantage in the series — no small factor given how raucous TD Garden gets this time of year — along with one of the best coaching staffs in basketball. That being said, a lot has to go their way for the Celtics to even compete in this series.
Here are seven keys that will decide who goes to the Finals.
1. Can the Celtics hide Isaiah Thomas on defense?
Thomas survived defensively against the Washington Wizards, but not without a few hiccups. The Celtics had him guarding Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. for stretches throughout the series, and both posted up Thomas with success. Against Cleveland, it’s clear who Thomas will start out guarding: J.R. Smith. Because Brad Stevens would not dare have him guard Kyrie Irving or LeBron James.
The Cavs may give Thomas the same treatment they gave Stephen Curry in last year’s Finals: run Irving/Smith or James/Smith pick and rolls until the Celtics have no choice but to switch. From there, they can isolate and take advantage.
From Boston’s perspective, there’s no real solution here. They need Thomas’ offense to compete in the series, so they have to live with his defensive lapses. The only thing they can do is be almost perfect helping and rotating.
Luckily for Brad Stevens, the Celtics have capable defenders at every position other than point guard, even when you delve into their bench. Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Al Horford are all capable of helping, which is part of the reason they’ve gotten this far playing Thomas.
But this matchup is different. James is the best passing forward we’ve ever seen, and while Irving isn’t a pass-first guard, he’ll punish a late rotation. Boston has to be perfectly in sync, or James will hunt Thomas and pick them apart.
2. How big is Cleveland’s rebounding advantage?
Boston’s rebounding troubles have been well-documented this postseason, but Cleveland isn’t a team perfectly equipped to take advantage. The Cavaliers finished a paltry 19th in rebound percentage during the regular season, though they’ve seen an uptick during the playoffs.
Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love can bang down low, but the Cavs simply haven’t prioritized offensive rebounding over transition defense. That could change this series.
Al Horford pulled down less than a third of contested rebounds during the regular season, per NBA.com and will play center for long stretches. Amir Johnson is better but can’t do anything on offense. He’s played only 11 minutes per game this postseason, and it’s doubtful Celtics’ head coach Brad Stevens will give him a longer leash. Even if the Cavs don’t crash the offensive boards, Tristan Thompson will have a meaningful advantage for most of the game.
The Celtics could gang rebound, but that would mean ceding transition and early offense — the two easiest sources of points against any defense.
On the defensive end, Cleveland’s rebounding advantage could make a big difference. The Cavs had 115 transition possessions and scored 1.26 per over the first two rounds. Love is a deadly outlet passer and James a freight-train who can do more than simply get to the rim in transition — he’ll happily pass off to open 3-point shooters as the defense crashes around him.
The more defensive rebounds Cleveland gets, the more transition opportunities it will have. And given Boston’s already poor chances on the glass, they might cede offensive rebounding and simply focus on getting back.
3. Does Kelly Olynyk stay hot?
Olynyk went nuts in the fourth quarter of Monday’s Game 7, scoring 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting from the field with two rebounds and two assists. His performance made up the difference in a 10-point Boston victory (he had 26 total), and as weird as this is to say, the Celtics may need Olynyk to keep it up.
Other than Thomas, who, if things go wrong on defense may not be able to play as much as Boston would like, the Celtics don’t have a scorer who can carry the offense. Horford does a lot of little things and some big ones, but he’s not throwing up 30 a night. Marcus Smart is a great defender, as is Avery Bradley. But neither can come close to carrying an offense, and Jae Crowder can’t shoot.
So why not Olynyk?
If nothing else, Olynyk is a threat out of pick-and-pop. He flashed good ability on drives in Game 7, albeit against Washington’s atrocious defensive big men. But fear not, Cleveland has an atrocious defensive big of its own in Love. If Boston wants to hunt Love the way they hunted Ian Mahinmi, Jason Smith and Marcin Gortat in Game 7, then Thomas-Olynyk pick-and-pops are the way to do it.
The Celtics can get Love out on the perimeter — maybe even switched onto Thomas — by doing running those. They’ll hope for Kyrie Irving on Thomas, though he’ll likely guard Avery Bradley instead. In any case, the Celtics need a somebody to score points who isn’t at risk of getting run off the floor defensively. Olynyk was that person in Game 7. If he stays hot, Boston has a puncher’s chance.
4. How does Boston approach defending LeBron James?
Nobody has come close to solving this riddle since Golden State in the 2015 Finals. And even then, James put up insane counting stats. But the Celtics have no choice but to try and stop James from dominating. If Bradley starts on Irving, that leaves Jae Crowder as the only person who has a prayer of checking James in the starting lineup, and maybe the entire roster.
Marcus Smart is good enough defensively to give it a go when Cleveland puts James out there with the bench guys. But with a four-inch height disadvantage, it’s tough to see how he survives. Jaylen Brown has the height and some defensive ability, but nobody in their right mind is comfortable with a rookie on LeBron James in a playoff series.
Unless they match Crowder’s minutes up with James’, Stevens will have to take the plunge with somebody. Even if he does keep Crowder on James the whole time, there’s no guarantee that will work. Crowder is a darn good defender — the Celtics are over three points better per 100 possessions with him on the court this postseason — but James is the best player in the world, coming off a week of rest.
You have to imagine the Celtics would live with leaving Crowder on an island and letting James isolate 30 times a game if James would play into that strategy, but that won’t happen. Boston will probably dare James to pull from deep, but he’s shooting 46.8 percent from three during the postseason. If he stops hitting those, he can isolate and wait for help or run a deadly pick-and-roll with Irving — no team has found a solution for this with James as the screener or ball-handler.
James is the biggest reason that the Celtics come into the series as heavy underdogs and he’ll likely be the biggest reason they eventually lose. He can destroy a team’s best-laid plans with ease, and he hasn’t even been forced into third gear since last season’s Finals. There’s simply no good answer to this question.
5. How does Cleveland approach defending Isaiah Thomas?
If the Cavs give Thomas the Curry treatment defensively, there’s no reason they shouldn’t offensively. The Celtics love to run Thomas off the ball through a thicket of screens, so expect Cleveland to be physical. A few extra bumps can go a long way. If the Cavs are forcing him into defensive action, it will help them stop Thomas offensively as well.
It’s tough to contribute offensively when a team is going at you every time down on the other end of the floor. Moreover, if the Cavs can batter Thomas defensively, it may force Stevens to sit him longer than usual.
On the pick and roll, the Cavs may want to explore switching if Love isn’t involved. Tristan Thompson is capable of handling smaller guys — just look at what he did against Curry in last year’s Finals. Thomas may give him trouble, but if he forces help, the Cavs would rather have Avery Bradley shooting a three than Thomas doing just about anything.
If Love is involved, Cleveland will likely contain. At that point, the key is to avoid handing Thomas three points. He’s been masterful at drawing fouls when opposing defenders try to get over a screen. If they dare venture under, Thomas will pull up, a shot he hit at a solid 36.6 percent rate during the regular season. To try and mitigate this the Washington Wizards tried trapping, which went poorly for them, most notably in Game 7 when Olynyk got hot.
The Cavs are a better defensive team — they won’t blow as many rotations as the hapless Wizards and (predictably) have gotten better during the playoffs — but they’re still far from perfect. Defending Thomas will take more focus than they’ve given all year.
6. Do the Celtics believe they can win?
The Toronto Raptors didn’t get swept in the second round solely because they had no self-belief, but they were blown out four straight times because they had no self-belief.
Boston won 53 games during the regular season — good enough for the No. 1 seed. The Celtics have now made the Conference Finals and have a 25-percent shot of landing the first overall pick in Tuesday’s Draft Lottery. It would be very easy for them to pack it in and say this was a successful season, especially after they made no attempt to improve at the trade deadline, ceding the East to Cleveland in the minds of some.
They won’t lay down — at least not as easily as Toronto did. But if Cleveland is up by double digits heading into the fourth quarter of Game 1, it will be very easy for the Celtics to quit on themselves. If this happens a couple games in a row, it might be over before the halfway point in the series.
It’s cliche as hell, but the first step to pulling off an upset of this magnitude is thinking it’s possible.
If the Celtics can at least do that, they’ve got a chance.