What a Celtics season it’s been. Everyone left them for dead after Gordon Hayward went down in the first few minutes of their season opener. Pessimism set in again after Kyrie went down with his season ending knee injury back in April.
Here’s Stephen A. Smith dismissing the Celtics and Al Horford succeeding in the playoffs after the Kyrie news came out in April…
Now here we are in Mid-May and the Celts are getting ready to host the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals.
A year after getting waxed by the Cavs in the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics feel better equipped to try and dethrone LeBron. Cleveland has since lost Kyrie (boy do I wish he was playing in this series) and the Celtics are more athletic such that from a defensive perspective, they can throw multiple different players at LeBron. They are also a better defensive unit as a team.
Like any 7 game series in the NBA, there are a number of factors that will decide this one….
– Do you sell-out to stop (or try and contain) LeBron and make his secondary options beat you… or do you let LeBron get his points and make sure the secondary guys (e.g. Love, JR, Korver) don’t get hot?
– Can Brad Stevens dominate the coaching matchup as the best coach in the NBA and expose Ty Lue as the mediocre coach a lot of people think he is? We watched Brad thoroughly out-coach Brett Brown last series. One would have to think his leadership and basketball intelligence could be a major reason the Celtics may win this series.
– Will the Celtics ability to throw different bodies consistently at LeBron cause him some issues? I think we could see up to 6 different guys cover LeBron this series. I bet that Jaylen, Tatum, Horford, Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart, and Semi Ojeleye all try and guard LeBron at certain points in this series. The Pacers and Raptors did not have the defensive flexibility to throw multiple different looks at LeBron and handle him in the pick & roll like the Celtics can.
The list could go on and on, but in order for the Celtics to have a real shot to take this series, I believe the key factor is Al Horford. I said that the Al Horford vs. Joel Embiid matchup would be the key to the last series. I think Horford’s all around game on both ends of the court was the key factor in why the Celts defeated Philly. Horford was tremendous in the series, averaging 15 PPG, 8.6 RPG, shooting 58% from the field, stuffing the stat sheet with steals and blocks, and even hitting a clutch game winner in game 3 at Philly.
The issue now is that Average Al hasn’t exactly had a lot of success against LeBron James and the Cavs in their past playoff matchups. Horford’s all-time record against LeBron and the Cavs in the playoffs is 1-14 over 4 series. A frightening stat – I know. Now I will say that his only win against LeBron and crew came with the Celtics last year. The rest of his putrid history came with the Atlanta Hawks… not exactly a historic franchise.
But for those who didn’t pay attention last year, Al was horrible against Cleveland. He averaged 12 PPG, shot 45% from the field, 66% from the line, and averaged a measly 4 rebounds. Meanwhile his counterpart on the Cavs, Kevin Love, ate Horford alive averaging over 20 PPG, 10 RPG… and making 23 three pointers in the 5 game series. If Love dominates the Celtics/Horford again, this series will be over in a hurry. For the Celtics to have a chance to win, they’ll need Al to win his head to head matchup with Love. He may need to have the best defensive playoff series of his career, for the Celtics to advance to the Finals. Defending Love in the post and more importantly at the 3 point line will be his main task as a defender, but he will also be trying to slow down LeBron at times.
The Cavaliers have been relentless at using Love to set picks for sniper Kyle Korver. Their goal is to try and get a switch for Love to post-up whatever guard is covering Korver or to get Korver a good look from 3 point range. This will mean that Horford will either need to quickly switch onto Korver (to make sure he isn’t killing the Celtics with 3s), or give a quick hedge to Korver (so he doesn’t have a wide open 3 look) and then get back to guard Love so he doesn’t ge to post up a Celtics guard.
On the offensive end, Horford will have to continue to be the post presence he was against the Bucks and 76ers. I honestly think this is the most we’ve ever seen him post up, as a Celtic, during this playoff run. It’s been extremely successful to this point. Kevin Love can struggle defensively at times. Horford needs to take advantage of his strength against Love whenever he gets the opportunity.
If Al Horford can win his match-up against Love on both ends of the floor, then the Celtics have a real chance to take this series. As I’ve pointed out before though, he’s clearly had his struggles against LeBron, Love, and Cleveland. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his teams have struggled as a whole as well.
With all this being said, I think Al is going to step up big time. He’s been a man on a mission during these playoffs. He intends to prove he’s worth the max contract he received 2 summers ago. His stellar play will continue and turn this into a 7 game series that could go either way.
Buckle up Celtics fans. It’s going to be a roller coaster ride against LeBron!