Nobody likes to see their team in what appears to be an unwinnable situation. Let’s face facts right from the start: nobody expects the Boston Celtics to put up much of a fight in their first-round playoff series with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But as a true fan, I refuse to bury my team completely until the final buzzer sounds at the last game. Stranger things have happened.
The state of the Celtics
I recapped the Celtics’ bonanza of trades earlier this season, believing that they were largely stockpiling draft picks to build for the future, though they did have some promising pieces. Boston added another when it sent one of its picks, along with Marcus Thornton, to the Suns in exchange for Isaiah Thomas. While I was a little puzzled about the move early on, since the Celts already had two solid guards, the move has paid dividends. Thomas has averaged 19.0 points per game while providing a spark off the bench. He also could provide a long-term insurance policy should Smart’s well-documented off-court troubles hurt Boston.
These guards are the centerpiece of a team that goes two deep at almost every position. Jonas Jerebko has been something of a “glue guy” at power forward, giving the team another big man off the bench to add to solid early performances from Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger. Jae Crowder is a scrappy forward that makes several hustle plays, more than I expected from him when he was acquired, and James Young continues to develop at shooting guard. While the talent and experience are not at the level of, say, the Cavaliers, this is a hard-working, scrappy team that demands to be taken seriously, as they had one of the best records in the NBA after the All-Star break.
The Celtics’ starting five will likely be PG Marcus Smart, SG Avery Bradley, SF Evan Turner, PF Brandon Bass, and C Tyler Zeller. Smart has shown the ability to drive to the basket and score, and Bradley is developing some scoring ability to go with his lockdown defense. Turner has had his moments, while Bass and Zeller are steady if unspectacular players.
The state of the Cavaliers
Cleveland was a popular pundits’ pick to win the NBA title once they reacquired LeBron James and traded for big man Kevin Love to team with guard Kyrie Irving. However, early-season struggles and a possible feud between James and Love had many wondering if this was a repeat of the 2012-13 LA Lakers. That team flamed out amid injuries and infighting after signing its own “big three” of Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, and Kobe Bryant. The Cavaliers recovered to win 53 games and secure the No. 2-seed in the East. Many would say that 53 wins is still an underachievement given the talent level of this roster, but these Cavaliers aren’t listening. They know they can flip a switch in the playoffs as easily as anyone.
James, Love, and Irving have been as dominant as ever for most of the season (even if James and Love undershot their career numbers a bit), but it’s the Cavs’ supporting cast that will make or break their title chances. After all, lack of complementary players was a big reason why James couldn’t carry Cleveland to a title in his first stint with the team. Center Timofey Mozgov was yet another trade acquisition that was unheralded at the time, but he has been a top contributor for the Cavaliers, averaging career highs in points, FG percentage, assists, and blocks. His ability to clog the lane and deny the Celtics’ guards the ability to get to the rim will pose problems. JR Smith is also an underrated scorer, and can chip in some points if the Celtics decide to converge on the Cavs’ stars.
The Cavaliers’ bench is probably one of their weak spots. Guard Iman Shumpert is solid, but the rest of the team’s bench seems to consist of aging players whose best days are behind them (Shawn Marion, Anderson Varejao, and former Celtic Kendrick Perkins), or young players who haven’t taken the next step yet (Matthew Dellevedova and Tristan Thompson). The Celtics might actually have an edge here. As a UVA fan, I am hoping that last year’s star player Joe Harris gets a few minutes in the playoffs. Harris was a big reason that Virginia made the Sweet 16 in the 2014 NCAA tournament, and was just recently recalled from the D-League’s Canton Charge. Harris has been shuffled between the Charge and Cavaliers all year, and recently poured in 27 points to help the Charge reach the D-League finals.
David Blatt was at the center of the Cavs’ early woes, having to fight off claims that he’d lost the locker room and the attention of the teams’ stars. Since then, he’s managed his talent well and has helped it gel in advance of the playoffs.
Brad Stevens, though, has been nothing short of brilliant. He is a pro at using the talent he is given to cobble together a winning team. Nobody expected him to elevate a team largely composed of a mishmash of random players just one game short of finishing .500 on the season (40-42). One could argue that he shouldn’t have tried to win as much as he did, to keep the value of the C’s draft picks high. But he has also avoided creating a culture of losing in the locker room, and that can be just as valuable. Just ask the Philadelphia 76ers.
As much as I love my Celtics, I just can’t pick them to win. The Cavaliers have enough strength on both ends of the floor to frustrate the Celtics by denying them the ability to play their game. Stevens will likely throw out every weapon in his bag of tricks at the Cavs, since he has little to lose. I think Boston will steal a game but ultimately the Cavaliers will prevail in five. As far as the rest of the playoffs go, I like the Atlanta Hawks to come out of the East. They play a style that values team effort over star players, a formula that the San Antonio Spurs have shown can lead to championships. In the West, I think the Golden State Warriors are the most complete team. They dominated the regular season but somehow managed to fly under the radar a little given how the surprise Hawks and LeBron James’s homecoming sucked up the headlines this year. In that matchup, I like the Warriors to win their second NBA title in Oakland.