CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (58-35) at BOSTON CELTICS (63-31)
Tip-off: Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET
Line: Cleveland -1, Total: 203.5
Boston looks like a real threat even without its two biggest stars, but LeBron and Cleveland have only picked up steam in recent weeks.Given the Celtics' injury troubles—Gordon Hayward has missed the entire year, and Kyrie Irving was lost for the season in March—a seven-game first-round series win over a mediocre Milwaukee Bucks team felt about right. But what game next was less expected: Facing arguably the hottest team in the NBA, the Celtics stopped the 76ers dead in their tracks with a five-game conference semifinals series victory to advance to their second consecutive Eastern Conference Finals. Considering how good they looked against Philly, it appears like Boston has a real shot of taking down LeBron James and the Cavaliers, who have looked weaker this year than in seasons past. There's just one problem: LeBron and the Cavs appear to be surging at just the right time. Cleveland destroyed the hopes and dreams of Toronto yet again this season, sweeping the 59-win Raptors in dominating fashion. The Cavaliers made quick work of Boston in last year's ECF, but this Celtics roster puts forth a very different team indeed, one with considerably more blue-chip talent (if, right now, less experience). Since 1996, home underdogs revenging a blowout of at least 20 points (Boston lost 121-99 at home to Cleveland on February 11) and coming off a home win of three points or fewer are only 8-34 ATS. Over the last five seasons, games involving one team with a per-game point differential between plus-three and plus-seven, and has allowed at least 100 points in two straight games (BOS), and a team that has a differential between minus-three and plus-three (CLE) are 36-11 Under against totals between 200 and 209.5. Boston backup PG Shane Larkin is considered doubtful to play on Sunday with a shoulder injury.
LeBron's utter domination of the Raptors had everyone online rename their city to LeBronto. As brutal as that is, it was fitting. James finished the series with 34.0 PPG on 55.3% shooting, a mark that included a number of ridiculous, contested turnarounds in Game 2 and a game-winning runner in Game 3. His 43 points (19-28 FG) in Game 2 marked one of his most impressive performances ever, which, obviously, is saying something. The Celtics can hope LeBron shoots poorly, but they can only do so much to contain him. Instead, the x-factor in this series is every single other player on the Cavs. After a dismal first round in which he averaged 11.4 PPG against Indiana, PF Kevin Love found his rhythm against easier defensive matchups against Toronto and averaged 20.5 PPG and 13 RPG in the sweep. 37-year-old SG Kyle Korver got hot, too, shooting .583 from the field and .560 from three to average 14.5 PPG for the series. Whether these two can continue to find space against Boston's lengthy defense remains to be seen. PG George Hill was solid in a limited role against Toronto, shooting over 50% for the series, but will likely be taking more shots against Boston—he didn't take more than eight in a game against the Raptors. SG J.R Smith scored at least 15 points in three of the four games, but was blanked for zero points on two shots in a tight Game 3.
Saying Boston is without its best players is a disservice to C Al Horford, who just spent five games dominating the more-heralded Joel Embiid. He's spacing and positioning savant, and is the key that unlocks Boston's excellent ball movement on offense. He's also a formidable defender, both one-on-one and directing traffic for his teammates. He's expected to start at the five for Boston in this series, with bulkier C Aron Baynes starting games on the bench. Baynes' minutes will likely coincide with those of Cleveland C Tristan Thompson, and he'll look to neutralize a guy who has dominated Boston on the inside in postseasons past. Guarding LeBron will be second-year SG Jaylen Brown, who has made tremendous strides in his second season in the league. Much has been made of how he supposedly looked unencumbered by a hamstring injury after returning from missing Game 1 of the Sixers series, but there's not doubt that he'll enjoy Boston's three days off before Sunday. He stepped up big-time with 24 points (10-13 FG) in the clincher against Philly. So did rookie SF Jayson Tatum, who led Boston with 25 points (8-15 FG). Tatum turned 20 two months ago, but he has looked incredibly polished and poised in these playoffs. He's comfortable taking shots that matter, and so is the rest of this team, it would seem. That includes PG Terry Rozier, who has treated these playoffs as a coming-out party. He shot only 4-of-15 in Game 5 but still managed 17 points and a differential of plus-five, third-best on the team. PG Marcus Smart is far from a good shooter, but he makes hustle plays that visibly change the flows of games in Boston's favor.