Yes, the Celtics, despite having the all-important home-court advantage, are massive underdogs to the Cavaliers in the ECF, but the well-rested, undefeated Cavs would be fools to totally overlook the Celtics in this seven-game series.
There are three big reasons why:
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Al Horford is peaking
The Celtics' big-money free agent signing didn't make a massive impact on the Celtics or the league in his first regular season in Boston — he played well, but he wasn't the game changer many Celtics fans and league prognosticators built him up to be — but he has been tremendous during the postseason.
And that, of course, is far more important.
Horford's inside-and-out game is indicative of the modern NBA, and it's particularly lethal when he's knocking down 3-point shots.
In the playoffs, he is, in bunches.
Horford made 35 percent of his 3s in the regular season — respectable for a big man. So far this postseason, he's making 58 percent of his shots from distance.
Horford is never going to be confused with a big-time rim protector or glass cleaner — the Celtics still have serious concerns in both guarding the hoop and rebounding — but the Cavaliers' desire to go small with Kevin Love or Channing Frye at the 5 is mitigated in a serious way by Horford if he's knocking down 3 pointers at a similar clip to both of the Cavs' smallball bigs, as he's a dramatically better defender than both.
Perhaps Horford is the game changer we were told he was all summer.
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Cavaliers general manager David Griffin deserves a ton of credit for how he's augmented what was an extremely top-heavy Cleveland team's bench throughout this season.
Point guard Deron Williams has been a godsend this postseason, Kyle Korver, now healthy, has provided elite shooting off the bench, and Derrick Williams has given the team value as a depth big.
Add in the resurgent play of Iman Shumpert, who has been the Cavs' best 3-and-D player at times this postseason, and the seemingly eternally valuable Richard Jefferson, and you have a pretty good supporting cast off the bench for LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Love.
But the Celtics' bench might be just as good right now.
Olynyk isn't going to score 14 in the fourth quarter again — perhaps in his career. But he had four nice games in the Celtics' series against the Wizards and then the huge Game 7. His ability to stretch the floor from the center position (or play as a 4) should, like Horford, mitigate the Cavs' advantage when they play five-out with Tristan Thompson off the floor.
Rookie Jaylen Brown had a stellar Game 7 as well, and if he can continue to bring his athleticism and energy to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics won't necessarily need him to score — he can impact the game in a variety of different ways.
And then there's Marcus Smart, a 28 percent regular season 3-point shooter who is shooting a respectable 36 percent in the postseason — the sudden discovery of his 3-point shot has to be respected by defenses now, which opens up more space on the court for the Celtics' better shooters — shooters Smart will find.
Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas have similar games, as do Horford and Love — the Celtics won't be able to match the greatest active player in the game, but if their bench continues to play at a high level, they could cancel out another Cleveland advantage.
Jason GetzJason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Boston is moving the basketball at an elite level
Quick — which team leads the NBA in assists per game this postseason?
It's not the Warriors, or the Spurs, or the Cavs — it's Boston.
Yes, the Celtics are moving the ball at an elite level this postseason, averaging 27.3 assists per game with a 70.4 assist percentage. And while their opponents are certainly a major component in those numbers, the result is a solid offensive rating of 110.8 and the second-fewest number of contested 3-point shots (18 per game) this postseason.
That should be of serious concern to the Cavs, who have trapped like crazy over the last few months.
Cleveland knows it has defensive liabilities, so by being hyper-aggressive on the defensive end and letting James roam as a free safety, they can mitigate some of those problems — they're putting the onus on the offense to beat it.
If the Celtics continue to space the floor and move the ball like they have in recent weeks, their offense can beat that trap and get open shots — they did against the Wizards, who decided to trap Boston in their semifinal series and rarely proved capable of rotating enough to make the tactic work against the Celtics' passing.
Boston is a massive underdog for a good reason — chief among them The King — but for all those expecting an easy four-game sweep might want to think twice.