A quick turnaround forces the Boston Celtics to recalibrate and focus on taming a beast no team in the East has yet to conquer over the past three years.
As the roars at TD Garden slowly dissolved and the euphoria wore off following Boston’s 115-105 win over the Washington Wizards in Game 7 of the second round on Monday, reality hit. The Cleveland Cavaliers come to town, fully rested and raring to go as the Eastern Conference Finals get under way.
The defending champions, led by LeBron James, are rightfully heavy favourites after coming off back-to-back sweeps to reassert their dominance in the East.
There is little evidence to suggest the Celtics are anything more than a speed bump on the Cavaliers’ road to a third straight Finals, but Boston’s Isaiah Thomas is used to being counted out, both personally and as part of the team he’s helped revive.
“They didn’t give us a chance [against the Wizards]. They didn’t give us a chance when we were down 2-0 to Chicago. We got the No1 seed, they didn’t give us a chance,” Thomas said after scoring 29 points and dishing 12 assists to eliminate the Wizards.
“They don’t ever give us a chance and we just keep going. We don’t care about what others say.”
If Boston are to pull off an upset and keep James from reaching a seventh-straight Finals, Thomas will likely have to be at this best.
The guard received a heavy dose of showing and trapping from Washington and Cleveland figure to follow suit. In the previous round against Toronto, the Cavaliers employed aggressive defence on Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan, forcing him to get the ball out of his hands and rely on team-mates.
Cleveland’s approach has seen defenders fly around much more than in the regular season, but they still yielded 40.5 uncontested field goals per game in the playoffs, including 20.5 from beyond the arc.
Al Horford in particular is positioned to take advantage of open looks when Thomas gets swarmed, with the centre hitting a scorching 58.3 per cent from 3 in the playoffs.
Of course, none of what Boston does on offence will truly matter unless they manage to slow down a red-hot Cavaliers offence, which is currently shooting lights out at 43.4 per cent on 3-pointers, a mark even better than their efficient 39.1 per cent in the regular season.
Boston were the second-best team this season at defending 3s, allowing 31.0 per cent – including 34.8 per cent to Cleveland in four meetings – and they’ve lowered that to 31.0 per cent in the playoffs.
Aside from contesting on the perimeter, the Celtics have their work cut out to stop the Cavaliers in transition.
Boston were often vulnerable on the break against the Wizards, especially after turning the ball over, and the Cavaliers are similarly deadly.
The scales are tilted against the Celtics, but Thomas isn’t ruling out a shock, adding: “The good thing about it is we’ve got home-court advantage, so we’re going to be ready to try to take care of home court.
“We know it’s going to be tough, but at this point, anything can happen. We really believe that.”