NBA Playoffs First Round Preview: Cleveland vs. Boston

Rivalry renewed? LeBron and the Celtics have had many a playoff run-in, including his last few games as a Cavalier (the first time). However, this time doesn’t feel quite the same, with Rondo, Allen, Pierce, and Garnett all gone. These new Celtics, though, are nothing to sneeze at, and will have a chip on their collective shoulder in an effort to spoil Cleveland’s renaissance season.

This Season

Cleveland: After missing the playoffs last season, the return of LeBron James (and the addition of Kevin Love) has made the Cavs into arguable title favorites this time around. With Kyrie Irving playing his best ball, J.R. Smith clicking from 3, and the whole team on a roll, Cleveland is looking perhaps better than it’s ever been.

Boston: Despite trading away half their team (the departures of Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green most notable), young coach Brad Stevens and his scrappy group have refused to tank and continued to play great basketball. The midseason addition of Isaiah Thomas, who some think might be better than Irving, has had a huge positive impact.


Record Hollinger numberFire TeamRankings FiveThirtyEight
Cleveland 7th 4th 7th 6th 3rd
Boston 15th 14th 18th 19th 14th

Cleveland looks to be the better team across the board, placing top 7 in all five metrics while Boston doesn’t crack the top 13.

Key Stats

Shooting efficiency: Cleveland 4th offensive; Boston 15th defensive

4th quarter points per game: Cleveland 2nd offensive; Boston 25th defensive

Fast break points per game: Boston 2nd defensive; Cleveland 20th offensive

Boston’s biggest issue looks to be stopping Cleveland’s offense. The Cavs are a well-oiled machine offensively, and pick up the pace in the final 12 minutes (I’m glad those LeBron fourth quarter jokes have gone extinct), whereas the Celtics look to tire out or get lazy defensively in the game’s final quarter.

Starting Lineups


Position Player CornerThree WAR ESPN WAR EWA nERD WS BPM VORP Average
PG Kyrie Irving 38 20 12 9 9 31 18 20
SG J.R. Smith 75 107 139 303 125 105 79 133
SF LeBron James 10 4 6 14 10 6 5 8
PF Kevin Love 73 30 42 24 23 58 40 41
C Timofey Mozgov 159 55 73 65 64 170 137 103


Position Player CornerThree WAR ESPN WAR EWA nERD WS BPM VORP Average
PG Marcus Smart 122 73 306 354 179 95 91 174
SG Avery Bradley 112 116 247 474 195 271 236 236
SF Evan Turner 51 189 168 466 192 217 161 206
PF Brandon Bass 226 175 101 59 69 177 144 136
C Tyler Zeller 146 121 58 34 123 101 102 98

Matchup Advantages 

PG: Cleveland

SG: Cleveland

SF: Cleveland

PF: Cleveland

C:  No clear favorite

Bench: Boston

Coach: Boston

The Celtics don’t have a real advantage at any position in the starting five, but that’s not a huge concern for Boston, as they have 9 different players averaging over 20 minutes a game. Coach Brad Stevens likes to spread minutes around, and some of his team’s best players, like Isaiah Thomas and Jared Sullinger, end up coming off the bench.

As previously stated, Boston’s biggest concern is stopping the Cavs. Avery Bradley, an excellent wing defender, will likely see a lot of time on Kyrie Irving, but the Celtics don’t have many options in terms of a big wing that can slow down LeBron. When the King has the ball, or is simply involved in a play, the Celtics will likely have to employ a lot of doubling and off-ball help, and with the excellent floor spacing in Cleveland’s elite offense (Irving, Smith, and Love all shoot above 0.367 from 3, with Irving at a whopping 0.415) combined with LeBron’s well-documented passing ability (7.4 assists per game), Boston will have its work cut out for itself.

When LeBron is the screener in a high pick-and-roll with Irving, defenses have few options, even though the play doesn’t even necessitate James touching the ball. Here he slips the screen well outside the three point line:
Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 9.53.20 AM
If Bradley, or whoever’s guarding Irving, can’t stay in front of him (which is often the case), someone will have to help on the drive. On this right side pick-and-roll, depending on how Coach Stevens decides to defend the particular play, player A or B will have to leak into the lane to stop Irving. If player A comes over and the defense declines to give LeBron the roll, player C will have a wide open 3:
Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 9.55.01 AM
In this case, it was LeBron’s man, player B, that came over to help so as not to immediately yield the open three-pointer. However, with Kyrie’s improved passing, he can easily thread this needle to find #23 barreling toward the basket – not a fun sight for any defense. If player E comes over, it will result in an easy dunk for the center, so player D has to get into the terrifying position known as “between LeBron and the basket”:
Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 10.07.10 AM

However, before the defense can even react to the ball being in LeBron’s hands, it’s back out. James doesn’t even need to think before rifling the no-look pass to the left corner, where J.R. Smith gets a ridiculous 1.41 points per shot:Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 10.15.00 AM

Almost needless to say, the wide-open shot went in for an easy three points. LeBron is just as deadly, if not more deadly, as the ball handler in the pick and roll as well, and with Love as the screener, the ability to roll or pop out for jumpers gives the defense even more problems. If Stevens decides to put Bradley or Smart on LeBron to try to prevent such perimeter ball-handling endeavors, James can just put his back to the basket and go to work. Look at his starting position on this play when he decides to post up:

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 10.20.38 AM

Seconds later, James is already at the basket.

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 10.27.23 AM

Once again, the defense is given the choice of close shot or three pointer. If player A comes over to help on the post up, player B will be wide open, and either take the three or, if player C then comes to contest, swing the ball to player D for another wide open three. Given the way the Cavs had been raining from three all game (17 of 32 from behind the arc that day), including the J.R. Smith corner three from earlier, the defense is afraid to collapse, and LeBron is allowed to bully his way to the free throw line when his defender is given the choice of foul or dunk (often times, it ends up being both).

In this best-of-seven chess match, LeBron will have a worthy opponent in Brad Stevens, who’s proven to be one of the league’s best in-game coaches. Though this is his first experience with a playoff series and all of the adjustments that entails for a coaching staff, he should be up to the challenge. The end-of-game sequence against the Raptors a few days ago is a good example of his coaching chops – when his original play for Sullinger looks to be dead from the outset, Stevens immediately calls another timeout:

And the next set he draws up is an ingenious one, taken from a random play by the Pelicans a couple years earlier, involving an Isaiah Thomas free run to the rim with the rest of the team crashing the boards. It ending with a game-winner:

This game-winning play drawn up by Stevens earlier in the season was perhaps even more impressive:

Adjustments like these are building the respect around the league for the coach that’s younger than Tim Duncan. He’ll have the biggest test of his brief career against LeBron and the Cavs.

Regular Season Series Results

Cleveland 2, Boston 2

The Celtics actually have won their last two matchups against the Cavs, though the most recent saw four Cleveland starters inactive. In the first tilt between the teams, Cleveland had to overcome a 19-point fourth quarter deficit and won 122-121. This small sample should be taken with a grain of salt, but the competitiveness in these matchups this season is encouraging for the Celtics.

Keys For Each Team


  • How will Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love attack the first postseason of their careers?
  • Can they rely on their sometimes-streaky three point shooting across the length of the series?
  • Can their bench hold water against Isaiah Thomas and Boston’s superior group of backups?
  • Will they avoid taking the Celtics too lightly in an attempt to coast to the next round?


  • How much of an impact can Brad Stevens make over the series’ course?
  • How will they guard LeBron? Will they go small with Bradley, big with Bass, or leave the job to Evan Turner and a lot of help?
  • How will the young group react to the spotlight in their first playoff series?


Cleveland is running on all cylinders, but the Celtics have been hot too as of late over the course of their playoff push. Coach Brad Stevens will do all he can to make game-to-game adjustments that benefit Boston, but it’ll be hard to overcome the simply better talent on the other side, especially with the Cavs’ home court advantage (31-10 at home this season). The Celtics will take a game in Boston, but this Cinderella story will end in the first round.

Cleveland in 5

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

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