Breaking Down the Beasts of the East as Cleveland Gears Up for the Green
From the early days of his career – possibly dating all the way back to a postgame brawl after a preseason contest in Columbus – the Celtics have always seemingly been there to push back against the future Hall of Famer. Sometimes they’ve stood in his way. Sometimes they haven’t.
After nine long days off, LeBron and the Cavaliers finally tip off the Eastern Conference Finals – traveling to take on those Celtics in a bid to reach the NBA Finals for the third straight season.
”We’ve been focused this whole week,” said James after Tuesday’s practice in Independence. “We got a couple days off – Monday and Tuesday after we clinched versus Toronto. But after that, we’ve been putting in work — mentally and physically. As far as our mental side, I’m not worried about that. It’s mainly the rhythm – we’ve been out, it’ll be 10 days (on Wednesday) since we’ve played a game. Rhythm is something, you need to see if you still have it. But mentally, we’re focused.”
For James, the Celtics stand in the way of his seventh straight trip to the Finals – and they were the last team to keep him from reaching them back in 2010. In that now-infamous Second Round series, James and the Cavaliers lost their last three games of the best-of-seven – with LeBron posting a 27-point, 19-rebound, 10-assist effort in his last game in the wine and gold before leaving as a free agent less than two months later.
In his first postseason series upon returning to Cleveland – taking on Boston in the First Round in 2015 – James and the Cavaliers swept the C’s out of the Playoffs in four straight, but not before losing Kevin Love for the remainder of their run.
This season, the Celtics won 53 games to finish with the East’s top mark – and the right to host the World Champs on Wednesday night. While we gear up for another showdown with the Boys from Boston, here’s a primer that might help spell out the series …
In the 2016-17 regular season, Cleveland won three of the four contests against Boston.
Photo by Jason Miller/NBAE via Getty Images
1. In 18 games against the Atlantic Division this season, the Cavaliers lost just two games – and only one of consequence – a March 1 loss to the Celtics in Boston.
Before that, the Wine and Gold – who averaged 116.3 points against the C’s this year – took two at The Q and stomped them at TD Garden in the regular season finale.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the four-game set this season …
The Wine and Gold scored 128 points for the second straight contest and improved to 5-0 on the young season – dropping Boston, 128-122, in Cleveland.
The Cavs scored more than 30 points in each of the first three quarters – running their lead to as large as 20 points in the third quarter before Boston cut Cleveland’s lead to five midway through the fourth.
But what LeBron James started in the third quarter – notching 20 of his game-high 30 points – Kevin Love finished in the fourth, scoring 11 of his 26 in the final 12 period. Kyrie Irving finished with 23 points and Tristan Thompson grabbed 10 of his 14 boards in the first quarter.
In their second meeting of the season against Boston, the Cavaliers once again opened up a 20-point lead before holding off a late rally.
Once again, the Cavaliers’ offense was hitting on all cylinders – scoring at least 30 points through the first three periods, with Kyrie Irving netting nine of his game-high 32 in the fourth and led both teams with 12 assists, his fifth game in seven contests of double-digit helpers. Kevin Love scored 11 of his 30 points in the first quarter of the late-December victory.
LeBron James – who nearly recorded the 46th triple-double of his career – labeled his performance “an F” despite finishing with 23 points on 9-for-18 shooting, adding 11 assists, eight rebounds and three blocks. He also led both teams with eight miscues – prompting the self-imposed failing grade.
Still six weeks before the postseason began, the Cavs first trip to Boston of the season felt like a Playoff game in a contest that featured 19 ties and 24 lead-changes.
LeBron James and Kyrie Irving led Cleveland’s scoring with 28 points apiece, but it was a pair of Cavalier newbies who figured prominently in the final seconds of that matchup – with Kyle Korver drilling a triple with less than a minute to play to get the Cavs within two and Deron Williams missing a potentially game-winning triple with 5.9 to play to seal the 103-99 win for Boston.
With less than a week to play in the regular season and in a game billed as a heavyweight bout between the East’s top two squads, it was the Wine and Gold who delivered the early TKO – taking the 3-1 series edge against Boston and reclaiming the top spot in the Conference with a dominating 114-91 at the TD Garden.
The Celtics took a one-point lead after one quarter, but that was as good as it would get Brad Stevens’ squad – who trailed by as many as 29 before both benches were emptied late in the fourth period.
Boston had won nine of their previous 11 heading into that contest and were poised to prove a point against the reigning Champs. But the Cavaliers – who came in winners of three straight – showed them they’re still the East’s alpha dogs, taking their fifth win the last seven meetings against the Celts.
LeBron James led both squads with 36 points on 14-for-22 shooting, adding 10 boards, six assists and a pair of blocked shots.
2. If you haven’t already scanned the ECF schedule, it ain’t hard to figure out: the two combatants square off on Wednesday night in Boston and play every other night – all games at 8:30 p.m. ET – with Game 2 slated for Friday night at the TD Garden.
Of course, the Cavaliers are very comfortable on the road – especially in the Playoffs – having clinched all four series last postseason and the first two this year away from The Q.
”It’s the Playoffs – it doesn’t matter if you’re starting at home or on the road,” said LeBron, who’s previously stated he prefers playing on the road this time of year. “You should be focused, and if not, you shouldn’t be part of the Playoffs anyway.”
The series shifts back to Cleveland, with Games 3 and 4 set for Sunday and Tuesday night at The Q – where the Cavaliers have gone 17-1 against Eastern Conference foes over the past three postseasons.
If necessary, Game 5 goes down next Thursday (5/25) in Boston, Game 6 on Saturday night (5/27) in Cleveland and Game 7 the following Monday (5/29) in Beantown.
The first team to four wins tips off against the Western Conference Champs on June 1.
3. Knowing Tyronn Lue, he will not have any mixed emotions about facing the team that gave him his coaching break – joining Doc Rivers’ staff for the 2011-12 season, two years after retiring as a player.
But Lue, who exchanges coaching ideas with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, does have a great appreciation for the tradition-rich sports town and its passionate fans.
The Cavaliers (8-0 in 2017 Playoffs) are the first team in NBA history to start 8-0 in consecutive playoffs.
”Just the winning tradition of Boston in general – with the Patriots, the Red Sox, the Celtics – they just have a winning tradition in Boston,” said Lue, who later followed Rivers to the Clippers before joining the Cavs in 2014. “And that town, they love their sports, they’re great fans. And the team, they appreciate. And I had a chance to experience that when I was there.”
4. The Cavaliers didn’t have a ton of history with their first two opponents of the 2017 Playoffs – having faced Indiana back in the late-90s when Zydrunas Ilgauskas was a rookie and having faced the Raptors only once before in the postseason, topping them in six games last spring.
But the Wine and Gold has plenty of experience against the Celtics – meeting Boston in six previous postseason series (1976, 1985, 1992, 2008, 2010 and 2015). The Cavs and Celtics have squared off 34 times heading into Wednesday’s contest – holding a 12-5 record at home, a 4-13 mark in Beantown adding up to a 16-18 record overall.
Boston halted Cleveland’s “Miracle of Richfield” run in 1976, falling to the Celtics (who would go on to win the NBA title) after dropping the Washington Bullets in seven games.
In 1985, Boston stopped George Karl’s Comeback Cavs – who began the season 2-19 and eventually reached the Playoffs – where they faced off against the reigning Champion Celtics – falling 2-1 in a hard-fought First Round series.
When the Cavaliers faced the Celts in the 1992 Playoffs, it was the Cavaliers’ turn to put an end to something – dropping Boston in seven games, the final contest which took place exactly 25 years ago as Cleveland knocked the Celtics out of the Playoffs in the last game of Larry Bird’s illustrious career.
One year after reaching their first NBA Finals, the Cavaliers beat a stubborn Wizards team in six games to face Boston in the Second Round. The Cavaliers took all three home games in the series, but – in a classic Game 7 duel between LeBron James and Paul Pierce – the Celtics held off Cleveland, eventually winning the title over the Lakers in six.
In 2010, the Wine and Gold took a 2-1 lead over Boston in their Eastern Conference Semifinal series, but the Celtics won the final three games of the series to take down the favored Cavaliers and (temporarily) put an end to an iconic era of Cavs basketball.
By the time Cleveland faced the Celtics in the postseason next, LeBron was back in a Cavaliers uniform and – despite the Cavs losing Kevin Love for the Playoffs after suffering a shoulder injury in Game 4 – the Wine and Gold made short work of the C’s, sweeping them out of the Playoffs in four games.