by Amy Audibert, Buffalo Sports Page
August was fun. The NBA was wrapping up it’s arguably most exciting offseason in recent years. Top tier talents like Paul George, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and Gordon Hayward all found new homes via free agency. A blockbuster trade was made right at the end highlighted by Boston sending their beloved Isaiah Thomas over to Cleveland for the electric Kyrie Irving. The Eastern Conference was a hop topic- it without a doubt generated a plethora of conversations and excitement. The majority of NBA enthusiasts would agree that the Eastern Conference Finals were essentially set- it would feature the Celtics and the Cavs.
But then the season happened.
The Boston Story
Boston’s newly acquired All Star Gordon Hayward would suffer the league’s most gruesome injury seen this entire year in the first quarter of the season opener – ironically at The Q against Cleveland. In devastating fashion, a fractured left ankle ended Hayward’s short season. In 5 minutes and fifteen seconds, the Celtics went from being the conference favorite to “let’s see what Kyrie and company can pull together.” Pull together they did – going on an early 16 game winning streak and holding a 30-10 record through December. It surely set the tone and led to much needed wins as life at The Garden seemed to welcome the grim reaper when Irving played his last game is March with knee problems requiring surgery. Initially there was hope that the five-time All Star would be back for playoffs, but Irving was officially announced out for the remainder of the season in early April. It’s downright amazing to see what Boston bench boss Brad Stevens has done. The Celtics, entering the playoffs as the two seed, had to play a Game Seven in their opening series against The Milwaukee Bucks featuring The Greek Freak. It would be almost unbelievable that this squad- short 2 NBA All Stars- would be on the verge of sweeping one of the league’s hottest teams, Philly, in the second round.
The Cleveland Story
Cleveland- my oh my- you never cease to amaze. In his 15th NBA season, LeBron James is having another year (of many) to remember. The Cavs looked more stacked then ever when training camp opened; boasting a roster with the likes of LBJ, Kevin Love, JR Smith, Derrick Rose, Isiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Kyle Korver, just to name a few. Oh ,and eventually welcoming LeBron’s right hand man, Dwayne Wade into the mix! However, as the trade deadline approached, it was clear that the struggling Cavs needed to make some changes of their own as they were still fighting for playoff contention. On the season through January, the Cavs’s held a 30-20 record, nowhere near meeting the early expectations. While it was probably tough for the home fans- Cleveland clearly wanted a younger and fresher group as they bid farewell to many but most attention went to the departures of Wade and Thomas. Newly acquired Cavs included Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., George Hill and Rodney Hood. While it was clear that the new pieces were still figuring out how to fit into a new system and especially how to play alongside the most dominant man that the league has ever seen (yes I wrote that), the Cavs earned themselves the #4 seed in a tight playoff run. Like Boston, Cleveland also won a Game Seven in their opening round matchup where they faced a 5th seeded and very gritty Indiana Pacers. Also like Boston, the Cavs are on the verge of a potential second round sweep where they are picking apart the number 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors. LeBron James continues to make a a case for the “Greatest Player of All Time” campaign most recently over the weekend. With a Game 3 tie and 8 seconds remaining, the Cavs were more then okay to get the ball to their weapon of mass destruction, proudly watching him go coast to coast, throwing up a decently contested mid-range floater, off of one very unsquared foot and in teasing fashion-a kiss off the glass as time expired.
Celtics vs. Cavs?
It’s quite fascinating that about nine months ago, the Boston vs. Cleveland Eastern Conference Finals was a solid prediction. However, during injury-plagued and roster movement turmoils, it was hard to consider either of these clubs heavy favorite ring contenders. Yet here they are, both leaning on their big strengths to find post season success and second round dominance. Boston is stacked with tremendous characters who buy into a system and play their roles. Brad Stevens has orchestrated an atmosphere of execution worth paying attention to if you aren’t already. The Celtics have a fine mix of young special talent like Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier alongside seasoned vets lead by Al Horford – who made the play against Philly to seal a Game 3 victory. Philly’s ROY candidate Ben Simmons in-bounded the ball on offense down 1 with 5 secs to go in OT. However, he took on this task almost looking casual with one hand which led to the 11 year vet Horford stealing the ball, the game, and most likely even the series through experience and hustle.
Cleveland has the biggest threat on the court at all times but they are also starting to find more consistent contributions from his surrounding cast and especially in this second round. A perfect example was the most recent game wining LBJ shot. The Cavs strategically placed sharpshooter Korver ball side. The Raptors could not leave him to stunt down and James 1on1 versus anybody in the world is a favorable matchup for his team. Kevin Love is also coming up big with 31 and 21 point outputs in the last two. Proving consistent alternative threats will be key if the Cavs want to reclaim their title.
We all have teams we would like to see find success- on a large or small scale. I have a ton of respect for both the “diehards” and the fans who enjoy the sport and genuinely hope for good games. Both Boston and Cleveland are organizations that seem to generate a whole lot of love or hate. Their fans are hardcore and their “haters” match the depth of emotion. It really doesn’t matter which side you find yourself standing on, but there should be at least acknowledgment if not respect for the stories both teams are writing during this entire season. Both started with extremely high expectations and had to endure some serious hardships and bumps along the way. Yet here we are with a very realistic Boston vs Cleveland Eastern Conference Finals matchup. Both organizations found a way to persevere and stay on course, both currently holding 3-0 second round series records, potentially earning the opportunity to compete for the Eastern Title.