The Eastern Conference Finals will once again be decided by the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, but as likely as the match-up looked coming into the season, reaching this point has been anything but predictable.
As recently as the first round of the playoffs, both sides looked in trouble of advancing, let alone getting this far.
Their paths now intertwine again, one year after clashing in the conference finals, with this being the third meeting in the past four postseasons.
It could have been expected back in October, after the Celtics’ bolstered their roster with the additions of Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, whose departure from Cleveland left a sizeable hole next to LeBron James.
But five minutes into the season, Hayward was lost to a gruesome leg injury, and five months later, so was Irving to sap Boston’s firepower.
The trio, along with steady forces Al Horford and Marcus Smart – all utilised by the coaching of Brad Stevens – have propelled Boston past all expectations and given them a shot to inexplicably reach the Finals in what was assumed to be a lost season.
“After Gordon, Kyrie, Marcus and [Daniel] Theis went down, no one expected us to go to the Eastern Conference finals,” Tatum said after the Celtics closed out Philadelphia in Game 5. “We just continue to prove people wrong and have fun while we’re doing it.”
The Cavaliers’ journey hasn’t been nearly as improbable because LeBron James has remained the one constant, but they’ve undergone significant changes throughout the season as well.
Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder were traded for Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance and Rodney Hood, but the latter three have gone from being necessary to Cleveland’s contention hopes, to role players giving way to the Cavaliers’ most veteran players.
“There’s been a lot that’s happened throughout the season with us and for [Boston],” forward Kevin Love said.
“Both teams have raised their level of play and been through it, but are here now and have to lay it all on the line.”
James’ presence alone gives Cleveland a massive advantage.
The superstar is vying for an eighth straight Finals appearance during a streak which has seen him win 23 consecutive Eastern Conference playoff series.
Boston were the last East team to knock him off, but that was back in 2010 when the likes of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were the Celtics’ backbone.
So while the Celtics have youth, athleticism, coaching and even home-court working in their favour, James is more than capable of mitigating all of that.
“LeBron’s on just a ridiculous run of play,” Stevens said. “We know that it’ll be quite a challenge.”
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