Another NBA season is in the books and the Celtics find themselves returning to the playoffs for the first time since the 2012-2013 season. In a season highlighted by trades and a changing of the guard, Brad Stevens coached a young, relatively inexperienced team to a respectable 40-42 record and a difficult matchup against a well known championship contender.
April 19 –  Celtics @  Cavaliers – 3 p.m.
April 21 –  Celtics @  Cavaliers – 7 p.m.
April 23 –  Cavaliers @  Celtics – 7 p.m.
April 26 –  Cavaliers @  Celtics – 1 p.m.
April 28 –  Celtics @  Cavaliers – TBD
April 30 –  Cavaliers @  Celtics – TBD
May 2 –  Celtics @  Cavaliers – TBD
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Credit has to be given to the Celtics this season. They took an uncommon rebuilding route in the ‘tank’ era that we live in by adding lesser known role players like Jae Crowder and Tyler Zeller to play alongside starter additions in Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner. This allowed them to compete while still holding all their valuable first round picks. The abundance of youth on the team allows the Celtics to run a fluid, open floor offense that can at times run circles around opposing teams. They’re a cast of misfits, which works to head coach Brad Stevens advantage in the playoffs. Stevens gained much of his coaching reputation through his March Madness underdog runs with Butler. Celtics fans have to hope that Stevens has something up his sleeve for any chance in this playoff matchup.
Apr 3, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens watches from the sideline as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks in the second half at TD Garden. The Bucks defeated the Celtics 110 to 101. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
The Celtics draw arguably the toughest matchup in the first round of the Eastern Conference. The Cavaliers are ranked fourth in the league in offensive efficiency (107.7), per Hollinger Statistics, compared to the Celtics who sit in the bottom third of the league (101.7). These numbers support their regular season woes against the Cavaliers – they went 2-2, but their two wins came when the Cavaliers were resting their three headed monster, Kevin Love, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, for the playoffs.
The Celtics do have something going for them – their exceptionally quick pace of play.
The Celtics do have something going for them – their exceptionally quick pace of play. They play a west coast style offense which ranks fifth in the league (98.4) compared to their opponents, who are ranked twenty fifth (94.8). The Celtics have youth and speed on their side, but it’ll take more than that to steal a few games from the Cavaliers.
Players to watch for
Isaiah Thomas: Thomas wasn’t a Celtic the first two times these teams met up this season, but since then he’s exploded onto the scene as the team’s primary scorer. His 20.63 player efficiency rating coupled with his 31.3 usage rate shows that the Celtics are looking to him more often than not when they’re running the offense from the half court. He will be key in keeping games close for the Celtics as he looks to build off of his .581% true shooting percentage from the regular season.
Apr 14, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Evan Turner (11) defends against Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) in the last second of play in the second half at TD Garden. The Celtics defeated the Toronto Raptors 95-93. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Evan Turner: Turner handles the ball up the court most of the time for the Celtics and acts as much of a passer in his position as LeBron James does. His court vision and lanky build allows him to play both the guard and small forward spot, making him the most versatile player on the team. He can score, pass and rebound, but he should be matched up with James for most of this series, which should severely inhibit his play creating ability. If Stevens can figure out a way to get Turner open and away from coverage then he should be able to break open a few key plays this series.
Marcus Smart: Smart isn’t going to be the offensive catalyst – he posted a pedestrian 37%/34%/65% stat line this season – but he’s stayed a starter for his pesky on-ball defense, which is what will likely get him a spot on the All-Rookie second team once awards come out. It will come in handy facing a team with a high-profile superstar at point guard. With no one versatile enough to shut down Love in the paint, and seeing as LeBron is as close as you can get to being unguardable, the Celtics should look to Smart to try and shut down Irving’s offensive game, forcing the Cavaliers to look to their other two options.
Apr 12, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder (99) drives the ball against Cleveland Cavaliers guard Mike Miller (18) in the second half at TD Garden. The Celtics defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 117-78. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Jae Crowder: Wow, what a buzzer beater against the Raptors. One of the throw in players for the Rajon Rondo deal, Crowder has really come out strong in the second half of the season. He provides a spark off the bench for the Celtics with his tenacity and hard nosed playing style. He doesn’t have the best ball handling skills but he can shoot the ball and that’s all the Celtics really need from him. The Cavaliers have all the star power in the world, but fall in the middle of the pack when it comes to bench play – as seen in the final two games of the season series they played against the Celtics. Guys like Crowder, Zeller and Olynyk will have to step up and provide some offense when they get their opportunity.
Do the Celtics have a chance to beat the Cavaliers? I’ll pose a better question. Did anyone think the Celtics would make the playoffs at the start of this season? This team has exceeded expectations all season, and it shouldn’t come as a shock if they take a game or two in this series. Ultimately, though, the Cavaliers are 11/5 odds to win the championship, and it would shock the basketball world if the Celtics somehow came away with an upset.
Series Prediction: 4-2, Cavaliers Win
There’s a bright side to this – this young Celtics team gets some much needed playoff experience, and they get it when they aren’t expected to do much. Teams tend to play aggressive when they have nothing to lose, and it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see the Celtics give the Cavaliers a run for their money. The experience they receive playing a championship contender now will serve them 2-3 years down the line when all those first round picks are converted into tangible talent, and will ultimately get this team back to being a championship contender.