With a player who has played in all of the last six NBA Finals, it is no wonder that LeBron James and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers are heavily favoured in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals against the top seed Boston Celtics.
James has played in all of the NBA Finals since the turn of the decade, appearing in four straight championship series with the Miami Heat from 2011 to 2014, and taking Cleveland into the finals of the 2015 and 2016 season.
And now, targeting his seventh straight and eighth overall Finals appearance, James is playing near-perfect basketball as the defending champions mercilessly ripped their opponents apart. They swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round, then dismantled the Toronto Raptors in just four games in the second. The King and his court are the first team to win their first eight playoff games following a title year, and by the way they are playing, they might actually sweep this round too.
But that will be easier said than done since the team that stand on their way are the Celtics, who finished first in the conference but had a hard time dispatching their foes in the first two rounds. Boston went down 0-2 in their first round series to Chicago, but recovered to win the next four games of the series and face Washington in the second round, where they got pushed to the limit but won Game 7 behind the career-game of the man-bun wearing Kelly Olynyk.
James, at 32, is way beyond his peak athletic prime, but he has found ways to become even more terrifying, which does not bode well for the Celtics. Through eight games, James seemed to have transcended his royal image and transformed into some form of a basketball god, equipped with perfect size and skill to render an opposing team to sheer hopelessness. He is averaging 34.4 ppg, along with 9.0 rpg, 7.1 apg while shooting 55.7% from the field and 46.8% from deep.
Boston already had difficulties in getting to the East finals despite their opponents in the first two rounds lacking anyone remotely similar to James. Also, James terrorized Boston in all of their four meetings in the regular season, averaging a near-triple-double of 29.3 ppg, 9.5 ppg and 9.8 apg while shooting 54.2% from the field and 35% from the arc.
The Celtics masterfully locked down John Wall in Game 7 against the Wizards, as the Washington All-Star point guard missed his last 11 shots in the last 19 minutes in the decider. But that tactic allowed Bradley Beal to go nuts and score 37 points for the Wiz and kept the game close throughout. Boston cannot afford the same strategy against the Cavs, since the King is flanked by Kyrie Irving and a bevy of three-point shooters ready to sink your dreams into the abyss. Except Richard Jefferson, all of the Cavs’ rotation players make more than 36% of their three-point shots, meaning the Celtics really need to guard them all from the arc to avoid getting drowned in a rain of treys.
All hopes of Boston going past Cleveland lie on the small All-Star shoulders of Isaiah Thomas. The diminutive guard is still the zippy-zappy scorer for the Celts but his efficiency has taken a dip as defensive strategies have adjusted to his speed as the series went on.
Fortunately for them, they have home court advantage in the series and will play the first two games at TD Garden, where Thomas is shooting 46.4% from the field and 36.4% from deep during the playoffs. And they too, have a lineup built for pace and space, and Cleveland are kind of leaky in the defensive department in the playoffs.
OFFENSE THE NAME OF THE GAME
But, Cleveland are disproving the statement that defense wins championships. They are below Boston in defensive rating in these playoffs, and they are five spots below the Celtics in the opponents field goal percentage allowed, but the Cavs are undefeated and the Celtics are 8-5. Why? Because Cleveland sport the best effective field goal percentage at 57.9% and have the best net rating among all teams in the playoffs at +11.1, while Boston produced a paltry +5.3 net rating.
And again, Cleveland has LeBron James, and the Celtics have Isaiah Thomas.
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