Despite LeBron tallying his 7th triple-double of the season, the Celtics pulled away victorious versus the Cavs on Wednesday night in an Eastern Conference thriller. Boston now sits a little more comfortably at that #2 seed, and many are anticipating more basketball to be played between these 2 teams in the Eastern Conference Finals. With that in mind, let’s dive into what we can realistically take away from Wednesday night’s game and carry into a potential playoff matchup.
1.Avery Bradley is still limited
In just his 2nd game back after missing the last 22 of 23 games due to an Achilles injury, Avery Bradley tallied 21 minutes against the Cavs. Bradley averaged closer to 36 minutes per game before his time off, but he’s been instructed to ease back into playing with restricted minutes. Nonetheless, his primary matchup while on the floor was against Kyrie Irving. We can’t fairly assess Bradley’s defensive performance as a whole because no one can get into any sort of natural groove with sporadic minutes, but – in the last and perhaps most critical possession of the game, Bradley was matched up on Irving and shut him down. And of course, this was all by design, as it was noted that Brad Stevens saved Bradley for this exact scenario. If and when these 2 meet again, it will be interesting to see whether or not Bradley can continue to shut down Irving down in critical moments and also wear him down throughout the Series.
2. Kevin Love and JR Smith have yet to return
The obvious key to this comparison is the current absence of Cleveland’s Kevin Love (knee scope) and JR Smith (thumb surgery). Both are expected to return for the playoffs, and the Celtics might have some matchup issues with this improved lineup. Wednesday night, Boston was able to contain the Cavaliers, allowing just 3 of them (L. James, K. Irving, and D. Williams) to reach double-digits. Avery Bradley covered Kyrie, Jae Crowder covered LeBron. Players like Marcus Smart, Isaiah Thomas, and Jaylen Brown were able to bounce around to various assignments. Al Horford had no problem with Tristan Thompson. But beyond those guys, the Celtics don’t much as far as lock-down defenders go (real-talk: does any team even have that many?). Add the component of Kyle Korver needing to essentially be face-guarded whenever he’s on the floor, along with Love’s and Smith’s versatility, and Cleveland’s 3-point opportunities become a lot more threatening – and their driving lanes become a lot more open.
3. The Cavs have been there before, the Celtics have not
The fact of the matter is, the core of this Cavs roster is fresh off an NBA championship. They swept in the first 2 rounds of the playoffs last season, defeated a very good Toronto team 4-2 in the Easter Conference Finals, then overcame a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals against a history-making Golden State team to claim the trophy. The core of this Boston roster, on the other hand, hasn’t made it past the first round of the playoffs. There’s the argument that Boston is hungry to taste something they never have before, but the following argument is just as valid: where strategy, skill, and grit can go a long ways, valuable experience can go even further.