The Boston Celtics started the season with aspirations of being a challenger to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA's Eastern Conference. They acquired big man Al Horford from Boston to go along with little dynamo Isaiah Thomas to form what they hoped was a dynamic duo that would take them further than the previous year. Well, Horford wasn't exactly the offensive dynamo that they expected him to be, but he was the leader they wanted. The Celtics, behind the combination of Horford's leadership, Thomas' scoring and stingy, physical defense took the top seed in the East, with many penciling them in to face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Well, two rounds have passed and the Cavs and the Celtics have both passed their first two tests. Now the matchup that everyone expected is finally here. The Celtics face LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers with homecourt advantage and confidence that they can topple them. The Cavs, for their part, struggled down the stretch in the regular season and righted the ship come playoff time, going 8-0 against the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors. The Cavs are peaking at the right time and no task is impossible, but what do the Boston Celtics have to do to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers and head to their first NBA Finals since the days of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett wearing Celtics jerseys?
The first thing that has to happen is the Celtics protecting the paint. When the Celtics last played the Cavs, Cleveland attacked the rim with aggression. The Celtics bigs were not present at all in the lane, as the Cavs were dunking or finishing with ease on their way to blowing Boston out in Beantown. Boston is the smaller team here and they are not going to grow overnight, but the bigs they do have need to step up and guard the rim. Guys like Amir Johnson and yes, Horford must meet the Cavs at the rim and be some kind of deterrent for them there. At the very worst, give the Cavs a hard foul to let them know that you are there and give them something to think about. But protecting the paint is not only about having a big man there to deter the opponent. The Celtics guards play a big role in stopping the parade to the rim. If they are able to stay in front of the people they are guarding, then it makes Cleveland have to work that much more offensively to get a good shot. Guys like Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart could be very crucial to the defensive setup for the Celtics. If they are able to put pressure on the ball, stay in front of the people they are defending and put hands in their face to deter easy passes, that takes the Celtics defense to another level and negates some of the easy baskets that Cleveland has been known to get.
The defense the Celtics play will be crucial, but so is the offense that they are able to produce. All season long, Isaiah Thomas has been incredible for the Celtics. His fourth-quarter scoring has been remarkable all season long and he has carried Boston on the offensive end. That all sounds good and all from a numbers standpoint, but for Boston to win this series, it cannot be all about Isaiah Thomas. IT is going to get his points no matter how Cleveland guards him, but there has to some other people show up to the offensive party. Recently, it has been guys like Horford, Bradley and, in Game 7, Kelly Olynyk show up. For this series versus Cleveland , they will need all those guys to show up and show up consistently. The more other offensive weapons show up, the easier things will get for Isaiah Thomas to get lose and the harder it makes Cleveland's defense have to work. The Cavs have turned it on defensively recently, but they can still be prone to having breakdowns on the court. The more the Celtics are able to move the basketball and get others involved, the more they give themselves a chance to win this series.
The Boston Celtics are not being picked by very many to even win this series. Honestly, the way Cleveland is playing, you would think they would dominate this series. Those things always sound nice in theory if you are a Cleveland fan, but just like there is any given Sunday in the NFL, there is any given series in the NBA. If the Celtics defend the rim and find some more offensive shot-making and playmaking in this series, they could make it tough on Cleveland and they could possibly win it. What the result of this series will be we won't know until the end of it. But what we do know is that Boston has made it back to the Eastern Conference Finals and essentially has a "me against the world" storyline tailor-made for them. Will they take that mantra and use it as fuel to win this series though? I guess we shall see.