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.”
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With one game on their home floor separating them from the Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Celtics are where they want to be.
Boston missed an opportunity to fire the first shot on the road and close out the fiery series with the Washington Wizards in Game 6, but with the deciding contest in their backyard, the Celtics remain in prime position to earn a meeting with Cleveland in the next round.
The home team has won all 10 of the regular season and playoff match-ups between the teams, with both sides performing dramatically different depending on location.
Boston failed to steal a win at the Verizon Center, while struggling with averages of 94.0 points, 40 per cent shooting and a minus-15.7 point differential.
Back home, however, the Celtics are unbeaten in the series, putting up 125.0 points per game on 51.7 per cent shooting and outscoring the Wizards by an average of 14.7.
With Boston and Washington both boasting strong starting lineups, Game 7 may come down to the benches and at TD Garden, the Celtics’ reserves boast a plus-7.5 plus-minus, compared to minus-8.7 for the Wizards.
While home-court advantage doesn’t skew to these extremes, it’s common for teams to shoot better and get more from their role players in their own building. But geography isn’t the only factor favouring the Celtics in Game 7.
After getting walloped in Game 2 and 3 in Washington, Boston has been the better team. They blew out the Wizards at home in a pivotal Game 5 and were a deep John Wall pull-up 3-point miss away from wrapping up the series on the road in the previous outing, despite getting all of five points from their second unit.
Isaiah Thomas hasn’t been the same since dropping 53 points in Game 2, with Washington throwing multiple defenders at him when he’s coming off ball screens. He’s gradually improved at becoming more of a playmaker throughout the series and when he’s not throwing the ball away – like he crucially did up five and close to a minute remaining in Game 6 – he’s been finding open shooters on the perimeter.
Thomas may not need a big effort in Game 7 for Boston to close it out, but Al Horford will almost certainly need to keep playing at a high level. The big man has been nothing short of extremely efficient through the six games, shooting 68.9 per cent overall and 57.1 per cent from deep. When Thomas has been trapped, Horford has helped alleviate pressure with his spacing and passing. Washington has had no answer for him and he, along with back-up big Kelly Olynyk, have the ability to beat Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi off the dribble when played aggressively at the top of the arc.
The Wizards will play in a Game 7 for the first time since the 1979 Eastern Conference Finals (won, 107-105 over the Spurs). pic.twitter.com/MKIwdcZz1B— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 13, 2017
John Wall and Bradley Beal present their own problems, especially in regards to who Thomas will have to defend, and Gortat was a terror on the glass in Game 6 to buy his team extra possessions, but it feels as if the Celtics have made the necessary adjustments over the course of the series.
The issue with a Game 7, however, is that those adjustments may not matter in the same way they would over a multiple-game series. Game 7s can bring out high variance and often, it’s just about execution and making shots. Home court affords Boston the edge, but they still have to make good on that.
“That’s where all the great players make their name,” Celtics star guard Isaiah Thomas said of Game 7. “You gotta give it everything you’ve got. I guess that’s where legends are born. I’m excited.
“To have Game 7 back in Boston in the Garden. If you had said that back in October, that there’d be a Game 7 in the second round, a lot of people probably wouldn’t even believe that. So we’re excited.”
Finally, the gold standard of the NBA will clash with the league’s burgeoning dynasty in the playoffs to determine who rules the West.
The match-up between the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs will not only feature the two best teams from this past regular season, but from last year as well, with the sides meeting for the first time in the playoffs during the Warriors’ three-year stretch of dominance.
Golden State barely broke a sweat in sweeping opponents through the first two rounds, while San Antonio have had a more challenging road, needing six games to overcome both Memphis and Houston.
As heavily favoured as the Warriors are, the Spurs have proven they’re capable of at least making the road more challenging for the team from the Bay.
San Antonio claimed two of the three regular season meetings, including an opening night blowout win. The other victory, however, came in a contest in which both sides rested their key players, while the loss saw Golden State overcome a 22-point deficit.
In the two games that included the regular starters, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich trotted out a more traditional line-up with two big men. While the Warriors are at their best when they go small and play Draymond Green at centre, San Antonio prefer to utilise their size and do damage in the paint and on the glass.
The Spurs grabbed 27 more rebounds in total across those two games, while holding a massive 48-22 edge in second-chance points.
“That’s how they won this last series (against Houston), by keeping balls alive,” said Golden State forward Kevin Durant said.
“They murdered us that in first game with rebounds, but that was the first game of the season.
“We’ve gotten so much better and more comfortable with each other since then, but we know offensive rebounding always translates no matter what.
“If we give up offensive rebounds and they take more shots than us, it’s going to be hard for us to win.”
Durant only played in the season opener against the Spurs, but dropped 27 points on 11-of-18 shooting while grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing four assists.
He and MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard will go head-to-head, with the latter dealing with an ankle injury that kept him out of the series-clinching Game 6 victory over the Rockets.
In the absence of Leonard and with point guard Tony Parker out to a leg injury, San Antonio have needed LaMarcus Aldridge to step up and the big man has delivered.
“He’s really turned it on, demanded the ball, got in good position using his body, and not always settling for a jumper,” Popovich said of Aldridge. “[He got] to the rim, did a really good job.”
Golden State’s jack-of-all-trades, Green, will pose a challenge for Aldridge on both ends and the match-up has the potential to dictate the series, which begins with Game 1 at Oracle Arena (UAE: 23:30).