As of Monday night, the Celtics surpassed the floundering Cavs as the #1 seed in the East. But does Boston actually have the firepower to beat the Cavaliers, or will this year’s Celtics team turn out to be another rendition of the DRose led Bulls? It’s easy to dismiss any Eastern Conference team without LeBron, but the Celtics have a legitimate argument that they can keep LeBron from reaching his 7th consecutive Finals.
For one, the Cavs are an incredibly top heavy team, and their bench has struggled mightily down the final stretch. This could be dismissed as an old team saving their legs for the playoffs, but when your bench has to lean on defensively challenged players like Channing Frye, Kyle Korver and Richard Jefferson, it becomes a real issue. LeBron is not without fault for this; he has repeatedly pushed the Cavs to trade for veterans at the expense of developing young talent for years now, and now they’re left with a bench with only 2 players under the age of 26. Any injury will expose a dangerously thin guard rotation, and the organization is praying that Larry Sanders can provide something of value for them. That’s scary for a so-called “Finals lock”.
Additionally, the combination of Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart is going to give Kyrie fits in a 7 game series, and Jaylen Brown and Jae Crowder form one of the only duos an NBA team can boast competent enough to do an honest job of defending King James. And though Isaiah Thomas is rated as the worst defender in the NBA, the Cavs SG rotation is a god-send for Coach Stevens to hide his 5’9″ scoring wizard. Shump and JR are nothing to scoff at, but the damage will be limited for such a glaring defensive weakness.
Jaylen Brown, I believe, will ultimately be the X factor in a potential series between the two teams. Coach Stevens would be wise to give Jaylen a long leash to make mistakes -which he will, guarding LeBron James- and learn from them as he goes. If Brown gains the confidence to guard the best player on Earth, hopefully the 3pt shooting prowess he’s displayed as of late will show itself.
That’s not to say the Celtics are without their flaws, though. Boston’s front court rotation will surely get eaten alive on the offensive glass, and Kevin Love will have his way with any big man the Celtics throw out there. Additionally, the Cavs 3pt shooting can be an overpowering onslaught, lead by LeBron James, still the most physically imposing player in the NBA in year 14.
The Cavs will also surely give Isaiah Thomas the Steph Curry treatment, running him through waves of screens with the hopes of breaking him down game by game. And while the Cavs don’t boast a consistent shot blocker, IT will definitely remember a hard foul from Tristan Thompson.
Though the Cavs have their weaknesses, picking anyone to beat a team with LeBron James is still a very hard sell. There’s no one else who can affect every aspect of the game like he can, and while Coach Stevens will pull out every trick in the book, James is too smart not to make the necessary adjustments. But the rest of Cleveland’s roster will have to prove their 23rd ranked defense is merely a hiccup on the road to their 3rd consecutive Finals trip.
Prediction: Cavs in 7