3:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Cavaliers -1, Over/Under: 203.5
For the second time in as many years the Cleveland Cavaliers face off with the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, as the two rivals meet in Game One from TD Garden after making relatively short work of their previous opponents. Another year, and another Conference Final for the Cavaliers (50-32, 4th in Eastern Conference), who will be making their fourth consecutive appearance in this round, with LeBron James (27.5 PTS, 54.2% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 8.6 REB, 9.1 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.9 BLK, 28.6 PER) making his eighth straight showing at this stage, though there were certainly points of the season in which it was rather hard to fathom that he and his teammates would make it this far. To say that the Regular Season was littered with drama would be a gross understatement, as nearly the entire Supporting Cast was moved at the Trade Deadline in an attempt to stop the bleeding. Forced to gel quickly, these new-look Cavs sustained plenty of ups and downs, but have nonetheless proven that when the Playoffs began they would be a force to be reckoned with, no matter their seeding. While the young Indiana Pacers pushed them to the brink in Round One, Cleveland managed to survive a war over the course of Seven Games, and then completely embarrass the Toronto Raptors in the Semifinals, mercilessly sweeping them in Four Games. James & Co. continued to own their foes from the north, running their Playoff Winning Streak against them to a staggering Ten Games; Offensively, Tyronn Lue’s charges had their way with the No. One Seed, shooting a blistering 51.6% from the Field, including 41.1% from beyond the Arc, all the while outscoring them by an average margin of 14.0 Points per Game. As you can imagine, James led the charge, personally humiliating Toronto, averaging 34.0 Points on 55.3% Shooting, along with 8.3 Rebounds, 11.3 Assists, 1.8 Steals, and 1.0 Blocks, tormenting them time and time again with a bevy of heartbreaking daggers, including the Game-Winning Floater off the Backboard as time expired in Game Three. And as much as the Supporting Cast struggled throughout the previous Series, they had no such problem against the Raptors, for five different players apart from James averaged in Double-Figures, with Kevin Love (17.6 PTS, 45.8% FG, 41.5% 3FG, 9.3 REB, 1.7 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.4 BLK, 22.4 PER) pouring in 20.5 Points on 47.5% Shooting, while veteran stalwarts such as Kyle Korver (9.2 PTS, 45.9% FG, 43.6% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.4 STL, 0.4 BLK, 13.4 PER) and JR Smith (8.3 PTS, 40.3% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 8.5 PER) added 14.5 and 12.5 Points respectively, with Midseason Acquisition George Hill (9.4 PTS, 44.4% FG, 35.1% 3FG, 2.7 REB, 2.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.6 BLK, 12.2 PER) adding 10.3 Points to boot. Lue decided to field a much smaller Lineup for the majority of that Series, with Love basically being utilized as a Stretch-5, if you will, which caused all manner of mismatches with the Raptors’ traditional Bigs, which when coupled with the outside shooting of the aforementioned Korver and Smith, provided James with all the room necessary to pummel his proverbial Punching Bag. It should be interesting to see how much he’s willing to feature that particular Lineup, for Boston has the versatility and Depth to change things up; the foes met on three occasions this season, with the Cavaliers taking two of those contests, though only one of those of the meetings occurred after Cleveland’s extreme midseason makeover, and that was a 121-99 rout at TD Garden back in Mid-February. Of course, James is no stranger to the Celtics, particularly in the Postseason where they’ve battled on six occasions, with the 4-Time MVP winning four of those Series, including last year’s Eastern Conference Finals in a Gentleman’s Sweep (I.E. Five Games). In that quintet of contests, he averaged a stellar 29.6 Points on a ridiculous 58.0% Shooting from the Field, including 34.5% from Downtown, along with 6.4 Rebounds, 6.8 Assists, 2.2 Steals, and 1.2 Blocks.
Meanwhile, it’s been quite a year for the Celtics (55-27, 2nd in Eastern Conference) too, for few expected them to advance to this point, particularly given the circumstances of losing not just their leading scorer, but the guy whose chief responsibility was in supporting him as well. Indeed, Boston’s fate seemed destined to be intertwined with the Cavaliers’ since the Offseason, when the denizens of Beantown pulled off a major coup acquiring Kyrie Irving (24.4 PTS, 49.1% FG, 40.8% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 5.1 AST, 1.1 STL, 25.0 PER) from Cleveland in a seismic trade last Summer, shortly after adding Gordon Hayward (21.9 PTS, 47.1% FG, 39.8% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.0 STL, 22.2 PER) in Free Agency. With those moves further bolstering the rivalry between the two teams, everything changed when they met on Opening Night at TD Garden, where mere moments into the contest, Hayward would land awkwardly on his Ankle, dislocating and fracturing his Tibia to boot, effectively ending his campaign before it ever really began. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Brad Stevens & Co. had to survive without Irving for a whopping Twenty-Two Games, including the final Fifteen of the term after the All-Star Point Guard underwent Surgery to alleviate soreness in his knee, which would eventually end his season as well. Rather than wallow in their own misfortune and ponder what could have been, Boston managed to maintain the No. Two Seed in the Eastern Conference, and in turn survive a dogged 7-Game Series with the Milwaukee Bucks in the First Round, a matchup in which neither team was able to draw blood on the their opponent’s Home Court. This led to the renewal of a classic rivalry from the 1980s, as the red-hot Philadelphia 76ers came calling, and were actually branded as the favorites despite being the lower-seeded side. While the boasted plenty of young talent, the Celtics proved that there really isn’t any substitute for Playoff Experience, which they used to their advantage in the Gentleman’s Sweep of the Sixers. If you don’t know what we mean by the value of Playoff Experience, it’s the mental toughness to overcome a more talented opponent, while coming up with every crucial play down the stretch of games, and having the presence of mind to know just when to snuff out your counterpart’s rally. Boston had all that in spades over the course of those Five Games, particularly in Games Two, Three, and Five, in which they came up with HUGE plays to alter the outcome of a trifecta of nail-biters that were decided by a collective Ten Points. Where they ultimately succeeded was in slowing the Pace of Play to a crawl, forcing Philly to operate in a convoluted Half Court, where they constantly took advantage of sloppy Ball-Handling, while jumping Passing Lanes. Al Horford (12.9 PTS, 48.9% FG, 42.9% 3FG, 7.4 REB, 4.7 AST, 1.1 BLK, 17.6 PER) once again proved his premium value in making life tough for the bigger, more athletic Joel Embiid, while the trio of Terry Rozier (11.3 PTS, 39.5% FG, 4.7 REB, 2.9 AST, 1.0 STL, 15.1 PER), Jaylen Brown (14.5 PTS, 46.5% FG, 39.5% 3FG, 4.9 REB, 1.6 AST, 1.0 STL, PER, 13.6), and Jayson Tatum (13.9 PTS, 47.5% FG, 43.4% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 1.6 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.7 BLK, 15.3 PER) continued to fill the void left by their more heralded teammates with their inspiring play. Tatum in particular was impressive, with the No. Three Overall Pick in last Summer’s NBA Draft leading the charge with 23.6 Points per Game on 52.6% Shooting from the Field, including 31.6 % from Downtown, along with 3.4 Rebounds, 3,2 Assists, 0.6 Steals, and 0.6 Blocks. He was never more valuable than at the conclusion of Game- Five’s tightly-contested, clinching 114-112 Victory, an affair that featured a whopping Twenty-One Lead Changes, the most in these Playoffs. After blowing a 12-Point Lead in the Third Quarter, the Hosts actually trailed by as many as Five Points late in the Fourth Quarter, but managed to turn the tables largely on the strength of the Rookie Swingman, scoring Eight Unanswered inside the final 1:37, with Tatum scoring the go-ahead basket on a Layup with Twenty-Three Seconds left to play. The youngster finished the night with Twenty-Five Points on 8-of-15 Shooting (55.3%), including 9-of-11 from the Charity Stripe (81.8%), along with Three Rebounds, Four Assists, and a Steal. When asked after the win how his team would go about stopping James, and he replied “Man, I’m just a Rookie. I don’t know. So we’re going to have to get to work on that.” Gotta applaud the kid’s honesty, right?