NBA Playoffs Preview: Cavaliers vs. Celtics
The odds of a Cleveland versus Boston playoff series really at any point of the season would have been quite low. In the preseason, it looked like Boston would be on its way to another top pick in the NBA Draft, and that was before they traded their two "best" players in Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green. Cleveland, on the other hand, was believed to be one of the best couple of teams in the East, but then faltered for most of the first two months.
But now we're finally here. Let's first dive into each team's resume and championship odds. Then we'll get into some matchup questions.
Cleveland Cavaliers (2)
Championship Odds: 6.1%
Boston Celtics (7)
Championship Odds: 0.6%
Regular Season Series - Cavaliers 2, Celtics 2
I'm generally not big putting much stock into regular season matchups between two teams. The Celtics took the last two games in their four-game series against the Cavs, but one of those came without Kyrie Irving, and the other came without any Cavalier starter.
And the two earlier season matchups are equally un-telling about the Celtics, who now have a vastly different roster -- one without Rondo and Green, obviously, but also with the addition of key pieces Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder.
Instead of looking how they match up against each other, let's look instead at how each team has fared on both sides of the ball and whether the other can find any way to exploit any weaknesses.
How the Cavaliers Can Win
The Cavs have officially opened the playoffs as the "Vegas favorite" to win the NBA title, so they're obviously heavy favorites here against a sub-.500 Celtics squad. Simply put, the Cavs will win this series handily if they merely exert the talent disparity they'll have at virtually every position. It's not that the Celtics aren't talented, but they're going against LeBron James and Kevin Love, arguably two of the best three players in the NBA last season.
As expected going into the season, the Cavs have a very good offensive, finishing the season with an Offensive Rating of 111.1, good for third in the league. Their main deficiency -- though mitigated some by their in-season additions -- is on the defensive side of the ball, where they rank only 18th (106.3) Boston probably won't be able to punish them much this year, but it will be interesting to watch how their defense plays early on in the playoffs.
Cavaliers Player to Watch - Kevin Love
The Cavs certainly don't need 100% of Kevin Love to win a series against the Celtics, but they certainly will if they expect to take down Atlanta or whatever team survives the Western Conference's hell-storm. There have been numerous articles about whether Love has been used correctly, and he's obviously had some bad back issues this season -- whether he can fight through it and raise his game in the playoffs will be the most important thing for the Cavs. If they were smart, they would get him going in this series against a mediocre-at-best Celtics defense.
How the Celtics Can Win
The Celtics can certainly win a game or maybe even two -- Brad Stephens is a deserving Coach of the Year candidate and has developed his players into quite the pesty group. Boston hasn't had any NBA playoff buzz since their last championship several years ago, so the Cavs will certainly face a hostile crowd after the first two games in Cleveland.
Unfortunately, if we're talking about winning a series, I don't see any scenarios where it can happen if both teams are healthy. The Celtics' big organizational issue going forward is their lack of rim protection, and if you have issues with rim protection, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are literally the last two players on Earth you want to see. The Celtics have been a fun, frisky bunch this year, but Cleveland is just the worst possible matchup for them.
Celtics Player to Watch - Marcus Smart
Isaiah Thomas will probably be the most fun Celtic to watch over the course of this series. He'll most likely put up a 30-point game at some point and will torch Irving on a couple of possessions every game. However, rookie Marcus Smart is the guy I'll be watching the closest. The Celtics have some interesting young pieces, but they all seem somewhat expendable other than Smart. He's the future in Boston, and getting some valuable playoff reps and learning from Stephens will be fascinating to watch.
I'd like the Celtics chances in any other series. However, against the players and scheme of the Cavaliers, it's not likely that this series will last very long. As such, both my prediction and our algorithms think Cleveland will wrap things up quickly.
According to our algorithms: Cavaliers are 66.76% favorites.
My final prediction: Cavaliers in five.