A LeBron James-led team has won the past six Eastern Conference titles. His Cleveland Cavaliers are the clear NBA betting favorites to make it a seventh against the Boston Celtics. But then again, anything can happen in the NBA Playoffs. Here are five big questions for the Eastern Conference Finals heading into Game 2 in Boston on Friday night. The series switches to Cleveland on Sunday for Game 3.
5 Big Questions in Cavaliers-Celtics 2017 Eastern Conference Finals
Can Anyone Stop LeBron?
Look, no team has a defensive player that can totally stop LeBron. Do the Celtics have anyone to slow him? This will be James’ sixth career playoff series against Boston — the most he’s played against any opponent — and he’s excelled against the guys in green, averaging 29 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.4 blocks in 29 postseason games against them. The last time the Celtics reached the conference finals (in 2012), they lost to James’ Miami Heat in seven games. In this postseason, James became the first player in NBA playoff history to tally at least 275 points, 70 rebounds and 50 assists in a team’s first eight playoff games. His 275 points through eight playoff games are also the most by a player since Michael Jordan in 1992 (291). The Cavs went 3-1 against Boston in the regular season, winning 128-122 on Nov. 3 at home; winning 124-118 in Dec. 29 at home; losing 103-99 on March 1 on the road; and winning 114-91 on the road on April 5.
Can Celtics Take Advantage Of Irving?
Cleveland point guard Kyrie Irving is an All-Star and a fabulous offensive player. He simply is not good defensively so the Celtics must take advantage. Jeff Teague, Kyle Lowry and Paul George were able to score over Irving when he was their primary defender (20-of- 36 this postseason) earlier in the playoffs. Irving has held everyone else to a combined 7-of- 36 from the field. If the Celtics can get matchups of Irving guarding Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics should be salivating. Thomas shot 46 percent (25-of- 54) from 3-point range against the Wizards in the conference semifinals. Irving won’t guard Thomas the whole game, though; Iman Shumpert will get the nod to cover Thomas when he enters the game off the bench and J.R. Smith may guard Thomas some too.
Three-Point Shooting Will Be Key
Since the start of the playoffs, the Cavs lead all teams in three-point field goals made per game, hitting 14.4 a contest as a team on 43.4% shooting. The Celtics are right behind them at No. 2, connecting on 13.1 a game on 37.3% shooting. The Cavaliers have made 55 percent of their uncontested 3-pointers this postseason, best in the NBA. The Bucks, who are already eliminated, are the only other team over 50 percent (52 percent). The Celtics defended the 3-pointer well in the last three games against the Wizards, holding them to 27 percent shooting (22-of- 82). Both teams do a fine job of generating open looks, while the Cavs also have more players who aren’t afraid to pull up from behind the arc.
Maybe East Is Too Weak
Going back to the 2015 postseason, the Cavs hold a 32-4 playoff record against Eastern Conference opponents (15-3 mark on the road over that span). In the semifinals win over Toronto, the Cavs won by an average margin of 15.3 points (116.3-101.0) and made at least 13 three-pointers in all four games. Cleveland is connecting on a franchise-playoff record 114.5 points per game this postseason, the 2nd-most among all 16 playoff teams. The Cavs also lead this year’s postseason in three-pointers per game (14.4) and three-point percentage (.434, 115-265). Cleveland has won each of its last 12 potential series-clinching playoff games since 2009. That matches the longest such streak in NBA history, set by the Lakers from 2000 to 2004. It hasn’t been an easy climb to this point for the Celtics. after dropping the first two games of that First Round series – and are coming off a tough seven-game battle with the Wizards to reach the Conference Finals
Cavs Better Beat Boston Now
While I think Cleveland wins this series in 5 or 6 games, the Celtics are going to be a true challenger to the Cavs as early as next season because not only will LeBron be a year older, but Boston won the NBA Draft lottery on Tuesday and will either add a young star like University of Washington guard Markelle Fultz with the No. 1 overall pick or trade it for an established star like Chicago’s Jimmy Butler or Indiana’s Paul George. The Celtics are the first team since 1982 to pick No. 1 in the draft and have the best record in its conference. The ’82 team was the Los Angeles Lakers, who selected James Worthy No. 1 overall and became the dominant team of the 1980s.