The Boston Celtics are riding high, and you can't blame them.
Not only did they silence the doubters in their second-round playoff matchup against the Washington Wizards, the Celtics won the first overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft on Tuesday night, because the city of Boston hasn't had enough sports success lately. Now, they're ready to host the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals. Truly, life is grand for a Celtics fan.
There is some bad news, however: LeBron James is ready to help Boston dive into its draft preparation by sending the Celtics home as soon as possible. Game 1 tips off Wednesday in the first postseason matchup between these teams since Cleveland swept Boston in 2015.
A lot has changed since then, but the biggest key remains the same: the Cavaliers still have LeBron James, and the Celtics don't.
You already know that, of course. So to get you ready for the 2017 NBA Eastern Conference finals, here are five burning questions that will define this series.
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Can Isaiah Thomas be the best point guard in the series?
It's the most basic question in this series — because if he can't, the Celtics won't stand a chance.
Thomas has to be the second-best player in this series, and the gap between him and Kyrie Irving needs to be significant. Cleveland still has questions on defense, questions a pick-and-roll playmaker like Thomas can exploit if he's playing like an All-Star.
If he's a nightly threat to light Irving up for 40-plus points, his team will give the Cavaliers the fight of their lives. But if Thomas plays Irving to a draw while LeBron James wreaks havoc, the Celtics' stay in the Eastern Conference might not last past Game 4 on Tuesday.
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How big is the Celtics' coaching edge, really?
Conventional wisdom says Brad Stevens is a far better NBA coach than Tyronn Lue, and that might be true.
It's also hard to be certain. There's so much we don't know about the day-to-day workings of the job, let alone the in-game decisions guys make.
Still, the postseason is one arena where a coaching mismatch becomes glaringly obvious, as teams adjust from one game to the next, exploit mismatches, and unveil new wrinkles they saved for this very moment.
If Stevens really is Lue's superior, this is the time to show what he can do. But if the coaching battle ends up more or less even in this series, maybe we can pump the brakes on Stevens' greatness — while appreciating just how difficult Lue's job is, and how well he does it.
Will Al Horford exorcise his Tristan Thompson demons?
Horford had an outstanding series against the Wizards, completely shutting down Marcin Gortat and carrying the Celtics when Isaiah Thomas struggled.
Unfortunately, the former Hawks big man faces his greatest nemesis in the Eastern Conference finals. Horford has suffered a playoff sweep at the hands of LeBron James' Cavaliers for the past three years, mostly because Tristan Thompson eats him alive.
Horford's just no match for Thompson's physicality. His rebounding woes are magnified against Cleveland's voracious devourer of caroms, and Boston can't afford to give up second-chance points against the Cavaliers.
This is the first year Horford will face Cleveland under coach Stevens, and maybe the wunderkind can scheme up a way for the incredibly skilled big to exploit Thompson's own weaknesses. Forcing Thompson to guard Horford in space is one plan. So is using Horford as a ball-handler with Isaiah Thomas setting a screen for him, as the Celtics did against the Wizards.
Yet all that's easier said than done when you face the defending champions, especially when you have two years worth of demons staring you in the face like Horford.
How will the Celtics guard LeBron James?
You have two options against the Cavaliers: you can let LeBron beat you, or you can try to force his teammates to do it.
The second option seems preferable, sure. That's a trap. No one can actually shut down The King (except for LeBron himself, but this isn't the 2011 Finals). If you concentrate your defense on trying to slow him down, you're just asking for a 30-point, 15-assist outing as you're blown out.
The Celtics are better off using their deep roster of pesky role players to hound LeBron's teammates, daring him to beat them by himself. He knows he needs to conserve energy for a Finals rematch against the Warriors, after all, so he'll be reluctant to beat Boston by himself.
And if you can catch LeBron trying to get his teammates involved while they're ice cold, you might steal a game or two from the Cavs. Then again ...
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Will LeBron keep his foot on Boston's throat for the entire series?
The biggest question, and perhaps the only one that matters, is how engaged LeBron will be against the Celtics. Will he goof off, probably during one of the games in Boston, and let the Celtics steal a game in a series that should belong to him?
Maybe LeBron would have made that mistake last season, or the year before, but in 2017, he's all business. If he wants to send a message and crush Boston's dreams instead, all the wizardry from Isaiah Thomas and defensive game-planning from Brad Stevens won't matter.
When LeBron James decides he's going to eliminate you from the playoffs, you end up eliminated.
Moreover, LeBron knows that the quicker he can get rid of the Celtics, the quicker he can get back to resting before the Finals. With that in mind, I'm expecting a 100-percent locked-in LeBron for four games against Boston. No more, no less.