The Eastern Conference Finals will once again be decided by the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, but as likely as the match-up looked coming into the season, reaching this point has been anything but predictable.
As recently as the first round of the playoffs, both sides looked in trouble of advancing, let alone getting this far.
Their paths now intertwine again, one year after clashing in the conference finals, with this being the third meeting in the past four postseasons.
It could have been expected back in October, after the Celtics’ bolstered their roster with the additions of Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, whose departure from Cleveland left a sizeable hole next to LeBron James.
But five minutes into the season, Hayward was lost to a gruesome leg injury, and five months later, so was Irving to sap Boston’s firepower.
The trio, along with steady forces Al Horford and Marcus Smart – all utilised by the coaching of Brad Stevens – have propelled Boston past all expectations and given them a shot to inexplicably reach the Finals in what was assumed to be a lost season.
“After Gordon, Kyrie, Marcus and [Daniel] Theis went down, no one expected us to go to the Eastern Conference finals,” Tatum said after the Celtics closed out Philadelphia in Game 5. “We just continue to prove people wrong and have fun while we’re doing it.”
The Cavaliers’ journey hasn’t been nearly as improbable because LeBron James has remained the one constant, but they’ve undergone significant changes throughout the season as well.
Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder were traded for Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance and Rodney Hood, but the latter three have gone from being necessary to Cleveland’s contention hopes, to role players giving way to the Cavaliers’ most veteran players.
“There’s been a lot that’s happened throughout the season with us and for [Boston],” forward Kevin Love said.
“Both teams have raised their level of play and been through it, but are here now and have to lay it all on the line.”
James’ presence alone gives Cleveland a massive advantage.
The superstar is vying for an eighth straight Finals appearance during a streak which has seen him win 23 consecutive Eastern Conference playoff series.
Boston were the last East team to knock him off, but that was back in 2010 when the likes of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were the Celtics’ backbone.
So while the Celtics have youth, athleticism, coaching and even home-court working in their favour, James is more than capable of mitigating all of that.
“LeBron’s on just a ridiculous run of play,” Stevens said. “We know that it’ll be quite a challenge.”
The decision was announced on Friday, ending the run of the franchise’s most successful coach, who led the Raptors to the second-best record in the league and the top seed in the Eastern Conference this season.
However, those accomplishments were apparently overshadowed by Toronto failing to take a single game off the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference semi-finals for the second straight year.
Over the last 5 seasons, the Raptors had the 4th-best regular season record in the NBA, and the best by any Eastern Conference team...— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 11, 2018
But in that time, Toronto is 9 games under .500 in the playoffs. pic.twitter.com/HMl4adDySV
“After careful consideration, I have decided this is a very difficult but necessary step the franchise must take,” said Raptors president Masai Ujiri in a statement.
“As a team, we are constantly trying to grow and improve in order to get to the next level. We celebrate everything Dwane has done for the organisation, we thank him, and we wish him nothing but the best in the future.
“He was instrumental in creating the identity and culture of who we are as a team, and we are so proud of that.”
After Casey took the job in 2011, Toronto improved their win total each of the next five years. His best work came this season when he oversaw stylistic changes that saw the team move away from an isolation-heavy, mid-range chucking offence to a more fluid, egalitarian and moderinsed attack.
That resulted in a franchise-best 59 wins and earned him the respect of his fellow peers, with the league’s 30 head coaches voting him the Coach of the Year.
As well as Casey did though, there was an overwhelming feeling that something had to change after the Raptors crashed out of the playoffs in disappointing fashion once again. And with the contracts Toronto’s top players are on, trades may be difficult to come by.
Casey has shown more than enough for him to land another head coaching gig sooner than later, while the Raptors could reportedly pursue Mike Budenholzer.
Curry returned in the second round against the New Orleans Pelicans after missing 16 games with an MCL sprain and mostly looked like himself, averaging 24.5 points on 47.7 per cent shooting.
“Yeah I feel good. I feel confident in what I’m able to do out there,” Curry said. “The timing can still get a little bit better with the ball and things like that when you start to get so excited.”