Facing the no. 2 seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, the top-seeded Boston Celtics are the undoubted underdogs. LeBron James and the Cavs have swept their way to this point. Boston had to come back from being down 2-0 in the first round against Chicago, then had to endure a grueling seven-game series against the Wizards.
A lot of things would have to go Boston’s way for them to have a chance against Cleveland. I’ve got six things that they’ll need to happen in order to legitimately challenge them in this series.
Isaiah Thomas has to beat out Kyrie Irving
First things first, if the Celtics are going to have a chance in this series, Isaiah Thomas has to outplay Kyrie Irving for a few games. He’ll have help from Avery Bradley who should be defending Irving a good amount. Thomas will have to overcome bigger defenders like J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert and at times probably even LeBron James. If Irving is able to outshine Thomas, Boston simply doesn’t have a chance.
– Thomas outscored Irving 57-47 in their last two meetings, both of which were since March 1. The Cavaliers won both of those games.
Avery Bradley has to be a madman
Boston’s best two-way player needs some monster efforts on both sides of the ball. The Celtics will badly need his scoring. In Boston’s playoff wins he scores more and shoots better from the field (17.5 PPG/49 %FG/41 %3P) than he does in their playoff losses (13 PPG/39% FG/33% 3P). Defensively, it’ll primarily be on Bradley to contain Kyrie Irving. He’ll give his team a chance if he can make life difficult for Irving, which he’s had success doing in the past while contributing offensively at a high and efficient rate.
Al Horford also has to be a madman
Horford has been essential for the Celtics this postseason.
Horford is averaging 16.1/7.5/5.8 on 64% FG and 58% 3PT. His PER is 24, and his BPM is 7.8. Those are very strong numbers.
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) May 16, 2017
It’s Horford’s versatility as a floor spacer, ball handler, screener, and passer that keeps the Celtics offense sharp. Horford has to be so good that LeBron himself has to spend time guarding him and that could open up things for the Celtics elsewhere on the floor. His role defensively is just as important, especially when he’s playing the five and having to ward off Tristan Thompson while also helping on drives at the rim.
Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder have to hit shots
The Celtics will need more than just hard-nosed play from these two against the Cavaliers. Smart and Crowder both will have the responsibility of checking LeBron James, and that’s the most important task, but the Celtics become a different team when these two are knocking down perimeter shots. They’ll have to help counter the shot making that’s bound to occur on the other side.
Kevin Love has to be neutralized
I don’t say this as if it’s an easy task. Love helps the Cavaliers win in more ways than one. He’s a mismatch in most situations and creates multiple opportunities on the glass. Boston’s forwards — Jae Crowder, Al Horford, Kelly Olynyk — have to try and collectively wear Love down on both ends. Irving and James can do loads of damage on their own, but if Love is grooving along with them, you’re surely done for.
Just like how Kelly Olynyk had the game of his career in Game 7 against the Wizards, the Celtics need some of their role players to have the games of their lives to pull out some wins in this series.
The Celtics have to play their most disciplined, fearless basketball in order to make this a series. If they can have these things happen with the right moments of luck, they might just be able to challenge the defending champs.