The Cavs will need to take the same route as last season if they want to advance to the finals for the fourth-straight year. While it has been a tougher road for the Cavs this time around, the team still find itself in Boston for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The second-seeded Celtics have been somewhat of a surprise this postseason after defeating Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks and the young, talented 76ers both without all-stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Celtics coach Brad Stevens has used his system and trust in his players to propel his team this far into the playoffs and have nothing to lose in this series against the Cavs. Who on the Celtics has the best chance of shocking the world again and thwarting the three-time reigning Eastern Conference Champions?
Point guard Terry Rozier has stepped up in Irving’s absence and has perhaps been the main contributor for the Celtics’ current playoff success. Rozier has averaged 18.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.2 steals in the playoffs and the Celtics are 7-0 when Rozier scores more than 16 points. While Rozier is averaging just short of 40% from deep this postseason, Rozier has historically been an inefficient shooter and his inconsistent shooting has been highlighted in the first two rounds as he has failed to shoot 47% from the field in nine of the Celtics 12 games. While I don’t think the following comparison should be taken as canon, his offensive style reminds me of former Celtic Isaiah Thomas, who shoots with confidence and isn’t afraid to make an aggressive attack to the basket. Rozier has scored 20 points in each of his last two games against the Cavs, but didn’t start in the season opener and wasn’t much of an offensive force as he is now. Expect Rozier to shoot the ball at will, but it’s hard to predict whether he makes 60% of his shots or 30%.
Starting at shooting guard is either Marcus Smart or Jaylen Brown. Brown was the starter at SG for the entire season but was recently benched for Smart after returning from an injury. Brown wasn’t a standout versus the Cavs during the regular season, averaging 14.7 points on 40% shooting. Brown has height at his position coupled with elite athleticism, making Brown a versatile player on both ends of the court. Marcus Smart made the game-saving play to finish the 76ers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals via an interception during an inbound play. Smart has been known for his defense during his four-year career and is noted as being over-aggressive and in your face, while also making egregious flops. Meanwhile, Smart is not a shooter. While he may play shooting guard, he has yet to shoot 37% from the field in a single season, which is considerably lower than the league average. Whoever starts in the series between Brown and Smart will represent the tone Stevens plans to set, with Smart being the defensive pest and Brown the intelligent, athletic scorer.
At small forward is rookie Jayson Tatum. His tremendous rookie season has been overshadowed by the likes of Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons, which leads us to forget that Tatum is the leading scorer for the Celtics in the playoffs at 18.8 points per game. Like Jaylen Brown, Tatum is freakishly athletic and his offensive game thrives around the basket rather than the perimeter, but he has shown throughout the year that he can consistently hit threes. Tatum excelled against the Sixers, especially while being guarded by Simmons or J.J. Redick, as he scored at least 20 points in every game. Tatum averaged about 13 points per game against the Cavs during the regular season, as he and most of the Celtics roster underperformed against the Cavs. If the Cavs get careless defensively, look for the Tatum as the main exploiter and the most capable of igniting the crowd following a massive dunk.
A familiar opponent in the playoffs for the Cavs is former Atlanta Hawk and not much of a fan-favorite in Cleveland, power forward Al Horford. Horford is having an incredible playoff run on both ends of the court, averaging 17 points per game and over a block and a steal each per game. Horford is a defensive player of the year candidate and backbone of this injury-plagued team, while also acting as a great facilitator on offense both with and without the ball in his hands. An impressive stat from Horford during this year’s playoffs has been 57.8% shooting despite his game being moved out more towards the perimeter in recent seasons, suggesting incredible efficiency and smart shot selection. He was not much of a factor during the regular season matchups versus the Cavs, but without Kyrie, Horford has been more of a focal point in this starting five and should be used differently than we have seen in the past, especially off of the pick and roll. Horford may be the most experienced player of this group, but that also comes with him never beating LeBron in a playoff series, so mentally Horford is a questionable part of this team.
Rounding out the starting five is Australian center, Aron Baynes. There isn’t much to say about Baynes, as he typically only plays half the game and attempts five shots per. His defense, while not poor, isn’t a notable part of his game, although his rebounding has been superb during the playoffs, averaging about 11 per 36 minutes. Baynes is shooting 47% from deep during the playoffs, mostly because he is not a natural perimeter shooter and therefore is often unguarded. Baynes was not often used against the Cavs during the regular season, as the Celtics rather turned Horford or Marcus Morris for production. Expect some minutes from Baynes during this series, but the Cavs cannot let Baynes dominate the glass during his time on the court.
The Celtics bench is thin, and rightfully so after the Hayward and Irving injuries. Marcus Morris has been a key contributor off the bench so far this season and during the playoffs is averaging 12.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. Morris can hit threes if not heavily guarded and is an underrated defender with good length and confidence (he thinks he can guard LeBron). The other main asset off the bench will be either Smart or Brown, and both will bring much-needed energy for what is practically a seven-man rotation. The other filler players from this bench include point guard Shane Larkin (injured), forward Semi Ojeleye and center Greg Monroe. All three players have seen a few minutes here and there during the playoffs, with Ojeleye seeing most of his minutes while Brown was out. Larkin will not play for at least the first two games, Ojeleye should see some time but rarely shoots and Monroe is usually a hit or miss substitution every game as he loves having the ball but doesn’t always end up making the best play. Outside of Morris and Brown/Smart, the Celtics bench is not as threatening the Cavs as that of the Raptors or Pacers and even on their best games will likely not seal a victory for the Celtics.
Much like the Raptors, the Celtics don’t match up very well with the Cavs and lack a go-to offensive weapon. Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Morris are their most reliable options, but Tatum and Rozier can cause issues if they heat up throughout the game. Coach Lue is likely going to get outcoached by Stevens, but the Cavs have a clear advantage talent-wise and just need to play four games of smart basketball to seal another trip to the finals. As long as LeBron’s supporting cast can hit their shots and not lazily play defense, I see this series lasting no longer than five games.