After all of the changes in the NBA, the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers are right back in the Eastern Conference Finals. Last May, the Celtics hosted the Cavaliers and lost in relatively easy fashion. Now, the Cavaliers and Celtics have dramatically different teams entering the Game 1 match up on Sunday. However, the road team will be the favorite once again.
Originally, the Celtics figured to have Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward in the lineup. Well, the dream of having their full complement of players ended five minutes into the season when Hayward suffered a gruesome ankle injury. Months later, the prospects of Hayward returning was put to bed when Irving was ruled out for the rest of the season. Many believed the Celtics would be eliminated prior to the Eastern Conference Finals. Now, they are they are in the unenviable position of taking out the three-time Eastern Conference champions in 2018.
LeBron James and the Cavaliers earned the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. They had to gut out a (4-3) series win over the Indiana Pacers in Round 1. Fortunately, the Cavaliers had no such problems with the Toronto Raptors last week. Although two games came down to the final seconds and/or overtime, the Cavaliers breezed to a (4-0) sweep of the Raptors. Interestingly enough, the Cavaliers are facing the same exact teams in the same exact order of last year’s playoff run. However, they only lost one game during the 2017 run into the NBA Finals. That lost came to the Celtics in Game 3.
Now, it’s up to the Celtics to put legitimate pressure on the Cavaliers. As a result, the Celtics have immense pressure to start the Eastern Conference Finals on a strong note. They are (7-0) so far in home playoff games. They defeated the Milwaukee Bucks (4-3) in the first round. All four wins came on their home court. The (4-1) win over the Philadelphia 76ers was highlighted by an incredible comeback in Game 2. The Celtics were (3-0) at home in the second round. They also won their first road playoff contest in Game 3. As a result, the Celtics are (1-4) in road playoff games in 2018. If the Celtics win every home game, they will advance to the NBA Finals.
Both teams are in the middle of the pack in playoff scoring. The Celtics are averaging 104.1 points per game. The Cavaliers are a notch below at 103.5 points per game. However, the Cavaliers are slightly better in scoring defense. They are limiting opponents to 102 points per game, while the Celtics are holding opponents to 102.5 points per game.
On paper, this looks like a series that can go the distance. Yet, the distance is based on how well the Celtics play. Point guard Terry Rozier leads the NBA with 38 made 3-pointers in the postseason. He is shooting over 39 percent from beyond the arc in the playoffs. Moreover, Terry is second on the team, averaging 18.2 points per game. Another young, talented player has taken the reigns as the scoring leader.
Rookie Jayson Tatum leads the Celtics with 18.8 points per game. Keep in mind, Tatum averaged 13.2 points per game in his first five playoff games. Since then, he has dropped 23 points per game over the last seven outings, including at least 20 points in each contest. Tatum is nursing a left hand injury prior to Game 1. However, he will be in the lineup.
In all, the Celtics have six players scoring in double figures. Al Horford is third on the team with 17 points per game. Jaylen Brown is contributing 16.9 points per game. Brown may have been the leading scorer, however, he is returning from a hamstring injury in Game 7 of the first round. Instead of languishing on the bench, Brown only missed one full game and has worked his way back into the lineup. He needs to be at full strength to battle with James for the entire length of the series.