By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — So, here we are, exactly where just about everybody in the basketball world expected. Warriors-Rockets. Cavs-Celtics.
The asterisk there, of course, is that the number of people who believed the Celtics would reach this point after Gordon Hayward went down in the opening minutes of the season dropped precipitously. And of those who remained on board, many more dropped off when Kyrie Irving was shut down for the season.
But the Celtics, to their credit, kept working, and for all of that work, they’ve earned themselves a date with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference finals.
The question now is whether or not this time will be any different than the Celtics’ most recent chances at knocking off LeBron (and the Cavs).
You might remember the first of the more-recent playoff meetings between the Celtics and LeBron (and the Cavs) for the incident of Kelly Olynyk yanking Kevin Love’s arm out of its socket. LeBron (and the Cavs) swept that series with ease, winning by an average margin of 9.3 points per victory. Only Marcus Smart remains from that Celtics roster.
They met again last year in the conference finals, when the Celtics managed to win one game. Isaiah Thomas finally gave in to his hip injury, but LeBron (and the Cavs) were not going to be stopped even with a full-strength Thomas. From that Celtics roster, only Smart, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier remain.
So how will it look this year, with Jayson Tatum, Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris added to the mix? Well, it’ll probably look similar, considering the type of dominance that LeBron (and the Cavs) just put forth in the conference semifinals.
Here are some stats, numbers, figures, and information about LeBron (and the Cavs).
—LeBron James leads the NBA in scoring this postseason. He’s averaged 34.4 points per game. He’s doing it on 55.3 percent shooting from the field. He’s gone over 40 points in four out of 11 games.
–(The Cavs) scoring drops off a cliff behind LeBron. Kevin Love ranks second on the team with 14.3 points per game, followed by Kyle Korver (10.5), J.R. Smith (10.0), and George Hill (9.8).
–LeBron James is averaging 9.4 rebounds per game. For comparison, Al Horford leads the Celtics this postseason with 8.7 rebounds per game.
–LeBron doesn’t lead (the Cavs) in rebounds, though. That distinction belongs to Love, who’s brought down 10.1 rebounds per game. Love has recorded six double-digit rebound games thus far, including a 17-rebound night vs. Indiana and a 16-rebound performance against Toronto. LeBron ranks second, followed by Tristan Thompson and his 4.4 rebounds per game.
–LeBron James is averaging 9.0 assists per game this playoffs. The next-best on the team? Hill, at 2.5 per game. James ranks third in the NBA in postseason assists per game, which is pretty impressive when you consider he’s the NBA’s leading scorer.
–LeBron James is getting to the free-throw line 10 times per game. That is more than any other player this postseason. He’s hitting 7.5 of his free throws per game, which ranks first among players who made it out of the first round.
–LeBron James did this in the final seconds of Game 3 vs. Toronto:
–LeBron (and the Cavs) are riding a bit of a hot streak. After repeatedly stumbling in their first-round series against the Pacers, LeBron (and the Cavs) have rattled off five straight victories. Three of them were close games; the other two were won by a combined 53 points. Considering the Celtics lost Game 2 last year on their home court by a final score of 130-86, this development looms rather large for Boston.
–LeBron James is averaging 41.4 minutes per game. That’s most among players who advanced past the first round.
Clearly, LeBron (and the Cavs) are a bit top-heavy. The Celtics are much more balanced. And hey, maybe that 41.4-minute average will ultimately be bad news for LeBron. For the Celtics to have any chance of stopping LeBron (and the Cavs), they’re going to have to focus just about all of their energy on LeBron. That’s something that teams have tried really hard to do over the past decade, not usually with great success.
And the fact that LeBron is dominating so thoroughly at this point of his career has to be discouraging for opponents. His numbers will likely dip as he plays more games — though, come to think of it, maybe they will, maybe they won’t. In any event, as it stands right now, he’s currently on a run that could see him average 30 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in a postseason for the first time ever. First time. Ever. For LeBron James.
He’s averaging just one fewer point per game than his all-time postseason best, which he set in 2009, when he was 24 years old. He’s now 33 years old, and he’s playing some of the most dominant basketball of his postseason career.
So that’s what awaits the Celtics. How can they stop LeBron (and the Cavs)? Well, that’s for Brad Stevens and his zero Coach of the Year votes to figure out. But here’s a hunch: It’ll probably begin and end with figuring out a way to make LeBron a little less lethal.
Indiana’s Nate McMillan received some Coach of the Year love from his peers, but he couldn’t stop LeBron (and the Cavs). Toronto’s Dwane Casey was named the best coach by his peers, but his team just got swept out of the playoffs by LeBron (and the Cavs).
Can Stevens fare any better? Can he crack the code? Does he have any tricks left for this Celtics team that has already overachieved by most every possible measure?
Wellllll. You probably know the answer. But the work of Stevens and the Celtics to this point at least inspires the entertainment of the thought that maybe — mayyyyyybe — it could happen. It will all depend on LeBron (not the Cavs).