Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Do the Celtics stand a chance against LeBron James and the Cavs?

After 82 games and two rounds in the playoffs, we finally get the Eastern Conference Finals match-up we all expected. The Cleveland Cavaliers led by LeBron James, up against the revamped Boston Celtics who only had four holdovers from last season. To everyone still living in 2017, we’re getting the ECF we all wanted! What a dream come true. Except, it isn’t entirely that.

A big part of the appeal of a rematch of last year’s Eastern Final was how it would be a match up between former teammates James and Kyrie Irving. Problem is, we’re not getting that. We’re not even getting the battle between Kevin Love and Gordon Hayward. From that point of view, this should be a walk in the park for Cleveland, setting themselves up for their fourth straight Finals match up with the Golden State Warriors (bite me, Rockets fans).

Is it really a foregone conclusion? Should we even play this series? Let’s try to answer some key questions for the Celtics in this series, as they try to match-up versus the Thanos of the NBA, LeBron James:

Are the Celtics going to get swept?

With the way the Cleveland Cavaliers got to the Eastern Conference Finals by sweeping the Toronto Raptors, it’s not out of the picture that James sweeps again.

The answer to this is simple: He’s not going to.

The Boston Celtics are a legitimately good basketball team and not just a result of the luck of the Irish, and the genius of Brad Stevens. There just isn’t any superstar in the same caliber as Irving, Hayward, or even DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. The Celtics right now embody what it means to play team basketball, even better than kind that the Indiana Pacers brought to James and his crew.

Don’t even talk about superstardom, it’s pointless in this series. This will be a dog fight, a clash between differing styles of play. Toss out the brooms and replace them with steel chairs and sledgehammers. This should be fun.

How can Boston defend LeBron James?

The easy way out of this question is to answer, “You can’t defend LeBron James! What’s the point?”

The Celtics are far from being pushovers this season, or even the kind of team they were last season. This is a tougher group with player built to fight. Against James, they’ll surely fight even harder than in previous Playoff match-ups in order to keep moving forward. Like their mantra coming into this series, Boston bends the knee for no one, not even the King.

Here’s the problem, however: flailing continuously, yet aimlessly, against someone as good as James is pointless. You have to be smart about it, because other than his sheer physical dominance, what sets LeBron apart from other players is how high is basketball IQ is. Make one mistake and he will pounce on every mistake. Good thing, the Celtics have the necessary tools to try and slow down LeBron.

For the sake of this piece, the model we’re going to follow is how the Celtics defended Ben Simmons in their previous series versus the Philadelphia 76ers.

In this particular set, Simmons is coming from the other side of the court, going down hill towards the rim. It’s a basic Simmons attack, but one that is so difficult to stop because of his size, and mobility. Here’s what the Celtics did to counter this: they sagged off Simmons, the obvious thing to do. But what made their defense different was how they put Al Horford on him. FYI, Horford is a big dude. 6’10”, 250 pounds is quite the weight you’re going to have to push, and Simmons could not do that the entire series versus Boston.

Other than simply being big, Horford is pretty nimble. He’s mobile enough to take out your driving lanes, and scrappy enough to close out on passing lanes. He isn’t a supreme athlete like James or even Kevin Durant. But he has the smarts and the grit to give opposing offenses a difficult time.

This is one approach the Celtics could use. Put Horford on James, and sag just a little bit. Definitely not as much as what Horford did versus Simmons, but a similar approach. The Cavaliers attack starts with James anyway surrounded with four shooters, so the Simmons model is a decent point of comparison. And it’s not like James has been shooting all that well ever since the second round. He shot just 16.6 percent from three point range versus Toronto, while his free throw shooting was a paltry 57.6 percent. It hasn’t been too good for LeBron from outside.

The difference lies, however, in how much more skilled James is compared to Simmons. Both are freak of natures who are close to unstoppable when going down hill. But what sets James apart is how he has a variety of other moves to pair with his drives. He’s obtained the final Infinity Stone by getting Michael Jordan’s fadeaway from mid-range, along with other highly skilled attacks. Putting Horford COULD work, but it isn’t entirely the same case as defending Ben. This is a different monster they’re facing after all.

Probably the best thing to do here is to simply mix up your defense. Throw different looks at James, not just Horford. James is bound to adjust. The beauty with the Celtics is how they have the personnel to give James different looks. Look at the clip above and watch how Jaylen Brown steps into the driving lane of Simmons to slow him down. That can be one tactict the Celtics can use.

Semi Ojeleye as a main defender is another option with his strong build. Marcus Morris has declared he’s the best at shutting down James — well, except for Kawhi Leonard but he doesn’t play basketball anymore — so he’s an option. Of course  there’s Brown, probably Boston’s best bet at manning him one on one. It will be tough, but it could be done.

How does Boston defend “the other Cavaliers?”

Let’s roll it back to that Simmons clip again.

Just like the 76ers, the Cavaliers start their attack with James. The biggest difference with Cleveland now from last season is they no longer have that secondary playmaker who can ease things off LeBron. George Hill has had his moments, but it isn’t the same as having Irving playing next to James. On that note, defending the other Cavs looks entirely possible.

You have to start by giving James, the head of the snake that is the Cavaliers, a difficult time. You probably won’t stop him, but at least make him work in every possession. Listen to what the “best defender” in the league, Zaza Pachulia said after Game 6 between Boston and Atlanta in the 2008 playoffs: “Nothing easy.”

The next step is to close out and commit to the other Cavaliers. Kevin Love and Kyle Korver have figured in some great chemistry with how they screen so well for each other, so communication and commitment on the defensive end is key. Little nudges born out of the physicality of the game is a plus, as this gives shooters and cutters discomfort in getting to their spots.

Follow what Pachulia said. Nothing easy. Start with giving James a hard time, and recover to the shooters of the Cavaliers.

Do the Boston Celtics stand a chance against LeBron James?

The simple answer to this is yes. This isn’t the same team that got blown off the roof last year. Neither are the Cavs the same team that could not be stopped by Boston. The Celtics are filled with more experiences, and are a lot grittier on the defensive end. This series could go the distance, with six games being the realistic choice.

But the result will still favor James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Games will be close, but James has shown that you should never ever bet against him until he loses. He made the #1 seed look like chumps. He won’t be able to do that against the tough Celtics, but he’ll do just enough to go to his eighth straight NBA Finals. It’s not an issue with the Celtics. It’s simply a testament to how good LeBron James is.

Photos from Getty Images

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