O’Sullivan: C’s can dethrone LeBron as King of East with defense, depth

  • Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, right, is embraced by Guerschon Yabusele after the Celtics the Philadelphia 76ers from the NBA basketball playoffs in Boston, Wednesday, May 9, 2018. Tatum scored 25 points as the Celtics won 114-112. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • Boston Celtics guard Terry Rozier celebrates after a driving to the basket late in the fourth quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 5 of an NBA basketball playoff series in Boston, Wednesday, May 9, 2018. Rozier scored 24 points as the Celtics defeated the 76ers 114-112. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • Boston coach Brad Stevens looks on during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday in Philadelphia. The Celtics won the series, 4-1. AP file

  • Boston’s Jayson Tatum (0) and Al Horford celebrate in the fourth quarter of a second-round Game 2 win over the Philadelphia 76ers at TD Garden. The Celtics begin the Eastern Conference finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday starting at 3:30 p.m. AP file

  • Boston Celtics guard Terry Rozier (12) celebrates his three-point shot against the Philadelphia 76ers in the first quarter of Game 1 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series, Monday, April 30, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

  • Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) drives to the basket against Indiana Pacers' Myles Turner (33) during the first half of Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Wednesday, April 18, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak) Tony Dejak

  • FILE - In this March 1, 2017, file photo, Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) lines up a dunk against Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game in Boston. The defending champion Cavaliers have been awaiting an Eastern Conference finals opponent since completing a sweep of the Toronto Raptors. After what will be a 10-day wait, LeBron James and company will travel to face the top-seeded Celtics in Game 1 on Wednesday night, May 17. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, FIle) Charles Krupa

  • Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) hangs on the rim after dunking against the Philadelphia 76ers in the second half of Game 2 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series, Thursday, May 3, 2018, in Boston. TheCeltics won 108-103. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

Monitor staff
Sunday, May 13, 2018

Enough about what might have been. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are not walking through that door. Isaiah Thomas will not be returning to Boston in a Cleveland jersey to exact his revenge. And Irving will not be trying to dethrone “big brother” LeBron James when the Cavaliers and Celtics open the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday at TD Garden.

Yes, those storylines would have been fascinating, but this series and these teams hold plenty of intrigue as is. Despite the predictions of most experts (five of five ESPN NBA Insiders picked the Cavs) and Las Vegas (Cleveland opened as 3-to-1 favorites) Boston can give the Cavs a run for their money.

Actually, let’s take that one step further – Boston will beat Cleveland.

Before objecting, can we please remember the Cavs played like hot garbage for much of the season? Cleveland was in such disarray it seemed like a foregone conclusion that James would opt out of his contract after the season and leave Ohio. Things were so bad that James, err, general manager Coby Altman, traded six players and two draft picks in February to revamp the roster.

The shakeup sort of helped, but let’s also remember the new-look Cavs were nearly eliminated in the first round by Indiana. The Pacers held a third-quarter lead in Cleveland in Game 7 before falling, 105-101.

There’s no doubt James and Co. took their play to another level in the second-round sweep of Toronto. There’s also no doubt that what happened against the Raptors was due to some circumstances that will be hard for Cleveland to replicate against the Celtics.

First, James owns the Raptors. He’s eliminated them in the last three postseasons and lost only two games in the process.

The key to that domination was Toronto had few options for guarding James, and none of them were effective. That lack of defensive ability and diversity was probably Toronto’s greatest weakness, but it’s Boston’s greatest strength.

The Celtics have an entire cast of characters to throw at James. Jaylen Brown spent the most time guarding him during last year’s playoffs, and James had his way with Brown. But that was Brown’s rookie season and the springy 21-year-old who is known for his learning ability has taken huge leaps in both skill and confidence since then.

Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart can both take turns on James without being totally overwhelmed by his strength or quickness. Jayson Tatum also has the tools to give it a go, as does Semi Ojeleye, who showed off his defensive prowess in the first round by slowing down Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Facing Antetokounmpo and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons in the second round should have helped prepare Boston for James. All three are athletic freaks who are also ball-dominant playmakers. The Celtics slowed down Antetokounmpo and tormented Simmons by throwing multiple defenders on them, daring them to shoot and leaving Al Horford or Aron Baynes in good position to help on any drives.

James is, obviously, more dangerous than Antetokounmpo or Simmons. If Boston dares James to shoot, he could simply win the series by draining 3-pointers. But it’s also obvious that the Celtics can pose a greater defensive challenge than Toronto, or Indiana. Boston was the top-rated defensive team in the league this year, allowing just 101.5 points per 100 possessions during the regular season.

“Who can guard James?” is a big question, but perhaps even bigger is “Who can Kyle Korver guard?” Korver was instrumental in Cleveland’s sweep of Toronto, connecting on 56 percent of his 3s (14-for-25) and averaging 14.5 points and 31.5 minutes per game in the series. If he stays on the floor that long against the Celtics, chances are he’s getting worked on the defensive end. Korver isn’t athletic enough to stay in front of Brown or Terry Rozier and he’s not big enough to guard Tatum or Morris.

The same case can be made against Cleveland’s JR Smith, who also caught fire against Toronto (10-for-13 from 3, 12.5 points per game), but is also a defensive liability that versatile Boston can exploit. Plus, Boston excels at defending the 3-pointer, which should help neutralize both Korver and Smith.

Kevin Love was also part of the Cavs’ second-round revival, joining Korver and Smith as James, errr coach Ty Lue, brought back the lineups that helped Cleveland win the 2016 title. Love was great against Toronto, averaging 20.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.

Against Boston, however, Love will be facing Horford, who been a defensive beast in the playoffs and Boston’s bedrock all season. Horford shut down Love during two regular-season meetings this year – Love had 10 points on 16 shots during the 64 possessions Horford guarded him, according to NBA.com stats. Love is also in the Korver/Smith defensive class, which means Horford should be able to get his on the other end.

The final piece of Cleveland’s “Let’s get the band back together” strategy has been Tristan Thompson, the power forward who spent most of the season lost on the Cavs’ bench but was reborn against Toronto. In the past, Thompson has killed the Celtics on the glass, but now Boston has a player in Baynes who can match his physicality.

Thompson has been coming off the bench while Baynes has been starting, but expect Boston coach Brad Stevens to adjust his lineups as needed. Stevens will get Baynes on the floor against Thompson. He’ll call the right sets to exploit Korver, Love and Smith. He’ll throw enough wrinkles at James to make him work.

And that highlights Boston’s biggest matchup advantage – Stevens vs. Lue.

There’s no denying James’s greatness or his ability to win this series all by himself. But there’s also no denying the Celtics are more balanced and versatile with a better defense and coach.

Give me the team over the superstar in seven games.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341, tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter