The Boston Celtics won a thrilling Game 7 Monday night against the Washington Wizards, getting the game of Kelly Olynyk’s life and another tremendous performance from Isaiah Thomas to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in five years.
Their reward? LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are undefeated through two playoff rounds and as a result, rested after more than a week off.
Here are five questions ahead of the series kicking off Wednesday in Boston, with a prediction for how it will play out.
1. Can the Celtics slow down the Cavaliers?
There have been questions about Cleveland’s ability to stop teams defensively, but in this series, the bigger question is whether Boston can do anything to slow what has been an unstoppable Cavaliers attack.
Through eight games, Cleveland has an almost incomprehensible 117 offensive rating, per NBA.com. For context, that’s more than three points per 100 possessions higher than Golden State’s league-leading regular-season rating. That number is driven largely by the Cavaliers’ astronomical 43.4 percent clip from three-point range while taking more than 33 triples per game.
Boston, which has the third-best defensive rating during these playoffs, must find a way to keep Cleveland’s offense somewhat in check. If it can’t, the Cavaliers will be off to the races.
2. Can Al Horford keep this up?
How about this for an impressive stat: Through the opening two rounds of the playoffs, Al Horford is on pace to have the highest true shooting percentage of any player in NBA playoff history who has taken at least 100 attempts. True shooting percentage measures field goal attempts, three-pointers and free throws.
— Basketball Reference (@bball_ref) May 16, 2017
Horford is averaging 16.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists while shooting 63.9 percent from the floor and a staggering 58.3 percent from three-point range. For Wizards fans, it’s a devastating reminder of what could have been had Horford chosen to play for Washington instead of Boston last summer. For Celtics fans, it’s a complete justification of Horford’s four-year max contract in Year 1.
Horford needs to continue that level of play and win his inside matchup against Kevin Love to snap his personal skid of 12 straight postseason games lost to LeBron James-led Cavaliers teams, dating from 2009.
3. Can Boston keep up with Cleveland’s second unit?
The Celtics’ depth up and down the roster allowed Boston to overcome getting outplayed by Washington’s starting five in the semifinals.
But Cleveland is such a devastating playoff opponent because it demolishes teams at the start of second and fourth quarters. Running out lineups featuring James at the point with a phalanx of shooters at every position surrounding him makes the Cavaliers virtually impossible to guard, especially against their opponents’ backups.
Boston will have to find some way to neutralize, or at least keep up with, that James-led second unit.
4. Can Isaiah Thomas be dominant?
Virtually anyone who has watched the Celtics would agree they aren’t on par with a typical No. 1 seed. Boston got to the conference finals with a combination of excellent coaching from Brad Stevens and the ridiculous offensive production of Thomas, the team’s 5-foot-9 dynamo of a point guard.
Boston needs Thomas to match his many incredible performances this season if the Celtics hope to keep up with the Cavaliers and their high-powered offense.
One word of caution: Washington showed that because of his size, Thomas can be limited if teams attack him aggressively. He willingly and successfully gave it up against the Wizards, but he’ll need to find a way to both do that and get his own production against Cleveland.
5. What will Kevin Love give the Cavaliers?
It’s been a disappointing playoffs for Love. While the Cavaliers have rolled, Love is only averaging 13.8 points and 9.1 rebounds while shooting 43 percent from the floor (though he’s making 40.5 percent of his three-pointers) and has been benched multiple times.
The unbeaten Cavaliers have done just fine despite that, but they’ll need more from him if they hope to win the NBA championship.
Love has had plenty of success against Horford, and if Love plays to his capabilities, a difficult challenge for the Celtics becomes impossible. And given the way Boston puts multiple bigs on the court together, he should be able to go to town.
The Celtics have had a tremendous season — and their future got even brighter with Tuesday’s news that they’ll get the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft. They have the brightest outlook of any NBA team besides the Golden State Warriors, and could one day dethrone James and the Cavaliers.
With all that said, the Celtics aren’t there yet. This collection of solid players surrounding Thomas just doesn’t have the firepower. Perhaps Boston can make a bunch of threes in one of the first two games and take a win, but the hunch here is that Cleveland gets a third sweep on its way to a third straight NBA Finals.
Cavaliers in 4.