8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Cavaliers -6, Over/Under: 215
Take a break from the never-ending, cavalcade of Bowl Games for a potential Eastern Conference Finals Preview, as the Cleveland Cavaliers host the Boston Celtics at Quicken Loans Arena. It’s safe to say that the Celtics (19-13, 3rd in Eastern Conference) probably don’t have very fond memories of The Q, which served as one of the sites of their four-game sweep at the hands of the Cavs two years ago in the First Round of the Playoffs. It was also the venue of their previous meeting this season, a 128-122 loss in Northern Ohio back on November 3rd. The shorthanded visitors gave the reigning NBA Champions everything they could handle (particularly in the Second Half), but ultimately came up short largely due to their inability to get to the Free-Throw Line, and in turn keeping the home side off of it; Boston knocked down 19-of-22 attempts (86.4%) from the Charity Stripe (one of their better performances of the season), but unfortunately sent Cleveland to the Line for a staggering thirty-seven freebies, of which they calmly made thirty-two of them (86.5%). In a game decided by six points, a thirteen-point swing is crucial, but then again, Brad Stevens’ charges have struggled to get to the Stripe all year, attempting just 21.4 Free-Throws, sixth-fewest in the NBA. Furthermore, they’ve attempted a Free-Throw on just 19.7% of their Field Goal Attempts (23rd Overall), which is indicative of a team that hasn’t shown the requisite aggressiveness on the offensive end of the court (I.E. shooting too many jumpers!!!). In turn, they’ve also omitted the seventh-most fouls in the league (20.9), granting their opponents an average of 3.9 more freebies per game. But look on the bright side Celtics fans, at least you’re team is healthy again! After playing the first ten games of the campaign without the services of major Free Agent Acquisition Al Horford (15.5 PTS, 45.9% FG, 6.8 REB, 5.0 AST, 2.1 BLK) and Jae Crowder (13.2 PTS, 48.0% FG, 40.8% 3FG, 5.3 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.0 STL), only to miss All-Star Point Guard Isaiah Thomas (26.8 PTS, 43.9% FG, 2.5 REB, 6.3 AST) for four more games, this team is finally starting to come together, providing glimpses of the contender that many in the media predicted them to be going into the 2016-2017 season. Since Thomas returned from a Hamstring Strain, Boston has won six out of their last seven outings, including a 113-103 victory over Memphis Tuesday Night. While the visiting side struggled from the field throughout the affair, the hosts shot a solid 48.2% from the floor, including 12-of-31 from beyond the arc (38.7%), dishing out a whopping thirty assists, and outrebounding them 47-37. Six different Celtics scored in double-figures, led by Avery Bradley (23 points), while the aforementioned Thomas added another twenty-one points to pair with his seven assists. Depth is key with this team, which is no surprise given how Management has stockpiled Draft Picks over the years, as Stevens has shown no reservations towards utilizing the entirety of the roster at his disposal; twelve different players have logged 10.0 or more minutes per game, with the Coaching Staff experimenting with a number of combinations throughout the first two months of the term. However, the biggest difference between this team now and the one that preceded it, is the presence of Horford, who has provided the Celtics with a rare two-way presence in the painted area. The four-time All-Star has been as advertised in Beantown, providing a stable defensive presence at the rim, while also proving to be quite the playmaker, dishing out a career-high 5.0 assists a night, which is remarkably good for second-most on the team behind Thomas. Stevens has oftentimes decided to run the offense through him out of the high post, where he has deftly found open shooters and cutters slicing their way to the rim.
Meanwhile, surprise surprise, but the Cavaliers (23-7, 1st in Eastern Conference) are once again sitting atop the Eastern Conference, but then again that seems to be the fixture of any team that has been led by LeBron James over the past few years. Indeed, the top of the East has become James’ proverbial throne, for whatever team that has counted themselves has fortunate to have the four-time MVP under contract has finished in First Place in the Eastern Conference every year since the 2008-2009 campaign. That’s eight years, folks, which is absolutely ridiculous. Then again, we’re talking about LeBron here, who a year after winning his third NBA Championship (and the first in Cavaliers’ History) appears to be breezing through yet another stellar season, averaging 25.5 points on 51.3% shooting from the field, 37.9% from downtown, along with 9 rebounds, 8.6 assists, and 1.4 steals per game. However, as divine as this guy’s been throughout his fourteen years as a professional, he’s not immune to fatigue, and Tyronn Lue knows that, which is why he decided to rest The Franchise following their resounding 109-108 comeback victory over the Warriors on Christmas Day. James played forty minutes of Cleveland’s miraculous fifteen-point comeback, totaling thirty-one points on 12-of-22 shooting, thirteen rebounds, four assists, two steals, and a block, yet was tactically kept out of the Cavs’ trip to Detroit the following night. Without James the Cavaliers struggled mightily, particularly on the offensive end of the floor, looking like a team that just went through an emotional NBA Finals Rematch; the visitors shot a dismal 38.0% from the field, including 11-of-28 from beyond the arc (39.3%), while totaling more turnovers (twenty-one) than they managed assists (nineteen) in the 106-90 loss. Kyrie Irving (23.6 PTS, 47.3% FG, 42.0% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 5.8 AST, 1.0 STL) and Kevin Love (21.7 PTS, 45.8% FG, 41.0% 3FG, 10.8 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.1 STL) led the way with eighteen and seventeen points respectively. Lue no doubt was disappointed with his team’s performance on the defensive end of the court, as the Pistons shot a scorching 16-of-28 from downtown (57.1%), while taking full advantage of the visiting side’s sloppy possession, leading to fourteen more field goal attempts. With that said, let’s call this for what it is, folks: the Cavaliers came out sleepwalking after an emotionally draining victory in a game that WE ALL had circled the moment the schedules were released, and were the victim of said scheduling on the second half of a Back-to-Back. File this one away as an acceptable loss, for like most champions, their collective eyes are on the bigger picture, and quite frankly that defeat in Auburn Hills simply doesn’t alter that. However, something that could alter said big picture is the prolonged absence of the mercurial J.R. Smith (8.6 PTS, 33.7% FG, 36.2% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.2 STL), who underwent surgery on his broken right thumb last week and will go on to miss at least the next three months of action. For all their positives, Cleveland doesn’t necessarily own the deepest of Benches, and you can say what you want about the thirteenth-year veteran, but he’s a lethal three-point shooter (37.5% 3FG over career) who brings valuable spacing to the floor. DeAndre Liggins looks to be the next man up, though it remains to be seen if the Developmental League Prospect can provide the shooting his predecessor brought to the table.