NBA News: Top-seeded Celtics provide final East challenge for LeBron James’ Cavs

Cavs vs. Celtics: The backstory

April 5. Heading into this series, that is going to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and with good reason. For the past month-plus, the Cavs had been struggling and their meeting with the Celtics in Boston, with the top seed in the Eastern Conference on the line, was supposed to be a barometer of their vulnerability en route to the NBA Finals.

All the Cavs did was deliver a 23-point beatdown, a game whose final score was not indicative of just how much a blowout the game was. LeBron James, always a terror when playing in Boston, was especially impressive: 36 points on 14-for-22 shooting, 10 rebounds and six assists. He abused the Celtics on the interior — he made none of his six perimeter shots, but repeatedly overpowered Boston defenders on his way to the basket.  

Of course, the Celtics could not buy a 3-pointer in that game, and finished 7 for 33. Throughout the playoffs, their ability to convert those perimeter jumpers has defined their success, and they were over 40 percent in their series against the Wizards. That came despite the perimeter inconsistency of guard Isaiah Thomas, whose scoring came mostly from forays to the basket. Thomas has had some struggles lately in the playoffs, too, seeing his production dip after his stunning 53-point performance in Game 2 of the conference semis.

The Cavaliers arrive in the conference finals eager to defend their conference title and get back to their presumed matchup against the Warriors. They, like Golden State, have gone 8-0 in the first round of the playoffs, and they’ll have 10 days off between their last game against Toronto and the opening of the conference finals. Rust was a problem for the Warriors against the Spurs on Sunday, but the Cavs just have too much talent not to be able to withstand an early Boston lead.

The key player

It’s James. It’s always James. He’s the guy who is overshadowing the entire Eastern Conference these days, and has been since he left Cleveland to join the Heat in 2010. James’ teams have represented the East in the Finals for six straight years now, and with the way he is going, there’s little reason to think it won’t be seven.

In the first two rounds of the playoffs, James’ efficiency has been off the charts, as he has averaged 34.4 points (second-most for his playoff career) on 55.7 percent shooting, making 46.8 percent of his 3-pointers and getting to the free-throw line 11.5 times per game.

The Celtics, like the rest of the East, lack a defensive presence who can at least handle James for 15- or 20-minute stretches per game. In the West, you have Andre Iguodala or Kawhi Leonard, but there is no counterpart in the East. The Celtics will try thick, wide-bodied Jae Crowder, and the Cavs will run James through pick-and-rolls when they do. They will try undersized Avery Bradley, and the Cavs will get James into isolation in those situations. They will put rookie Jaylen Brown on James, but James has too many tricks on hand for a young guy like Brown. James routinely torched P.J. Tucker in the second round of the playoffs, and none of the Celtics’ options are as suited to defend James as Tucker.

James has gotten strong support from point guard Kyrie Irving (23.8 points per game despite struggling with his shooting), and role players Tristan Thompson (10.8 rebounds) and Kyle Korver (48.5 percent on 3-pointers) have done what’s required. But this is about James, and you can expect another big series from him.

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The big number

227.7. If things stay true to form, these two teams should have a high-scoring, entertaining set of games, even if the Celtics have no real chance at winning the series. In the playoffs, the two teams have combined to average nearly 230 points per 100 possessions. The Cavs lead all playoff teams, according to NBA.com stats, at 117.0 points per 100 possessions, and are far and away the best team in the postseason when it comes to true shooting percentage, at 61.6 percent.

The Celtics have been potent in the postseason. The play of Thomas has been inspiring for the past month, even as he has slowed down lately, and big man Al Horford has silenced critics with his all-around game. But Boston just can’t keep up with the James-led onslaught.

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