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The Boston Celtics may be the No. 1 seed, but they know it will be an uphill battle if they want to sink the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Cleveland has yet to lose this postseason, sweeping the Pacers and the Raptors. The Celtics are coming off a seven-game showdown with the Wizards and are feeling the fatigue. Here are some of the key factors that could help determine the series.

Protect Homecourt

The Cavs will tell you that it doesn't matter, but homecourt could be big if the Celtics want to upset the reigning champs. When comparing both teams' records, one thing sticks out: The Celtics were really good at home (30-11), and the Cavs were really bad on the road (20-21) for their standards. Put those together, and homecourt advantage could absolutely play a large factor if the series is close enough.

That being said, it is pivotal for the C's to come out strong and protect their homecourt in Boston.

Rest

Don't give me any of that "the Cavs have had too much rest" crap -- this is a huge advantage for Cleveland. The Celtics just finished a physically-demanding seven-game series with Washington a short two nights ago. Everyone is fatigued and banged up, and the team is coming into the series on a quick turnaround after just one day off. While the Celtics are feeling the fatigue, the Cavs are fresher than ever.

After sweeping the Toronto Raptors on May 7th, they have been resting their bodies for ten days coming up to Game 1 in Boston on Wednesday. One may argue that this much time away from the game could have more negative effects than positive on teams. But the Cavs aren't like most teams. They didn't skip a beat after sweeping the Pacers in Round 1 and waiting for the Raptors to come into town. LeBron could go two months without playing a game, come back, and be his usual self for crying out loud. Also, it's not like Clevland's players have been sitting on the couch, eating chips, and playing video games. Don't overthink the "too much time off" argument -- it's clearly in favor of the Cavs.

Dethrone the King

Let's just call it as it is. LeBron James has been the beast of the East for the last seven years. Not a single team in the Eastern Conference has been able to knock him out of the playoffs since 2010. I recently wrote about his unprecedented dominance and how he is only more dangerous this season. If the Celtics want any shot at the Finals, they will need to find a way to handle the King. So how the hell do we do that?

There is no real correct way to do this because no one can truly stop LeBron -- I mean, the guy is averaging 34.4 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 7.1 assists while shooting 55.7% overall and 46.8% from downtown this postseason. Maybe Kawhi Leonard can handle him, but even he can only slow him down so much.

Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart can lock down just about any guard with their exceptional perimeter defense, but they are too small to contain James inside the paint. Jae Crowder will likely get the call to cover the King, much like in the former meetings with the Cavaliers this season, but he is still susceptible to his quickness on drives. If you recall, rookie Jaylen Brown got quite a few minutes on LeBron during the season when Crowder was on the bench. While he has the athleticism to keep up with LeBron, he is a very risky matchup simply given his inexperience.

Plus, no matter who is guarding him, Cleveland finds ways to create mismatches. Far too many times in their meetings this year, LeBron went one-on-one with Kelly Olynyk or Isaiah Thomas -- both of which are matchup nightmares for Boston. Therefore, Brad Stevens and his squad must be prepared to handle the pick and roll on defense. Allowing the screen to happen and then switching men is exactly what Ty Lue is hoping for, so fighting through and showing on screens until the defender recovers are a must if they want to quiet LeBron.

Bench Support

I'm talking about the potential x-factors. The guys who can come off the bench in a Game 7 and drop 14 points in the final quarter (*wink wink*)...

The Cavs may have the star power up front, but they have weapons all around. Deron Williams, Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson, Iman Shumpert, and Channing Frye can all be deployed off the bench for Coach Lue, while Stevens has mostly been relying on Olynyk, Brown, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier. Those Cleveland reserves are more stable and consistent than Boston's backups, but the Celtics' second unit could perhaps surprise people.

They have been playing well in the postseason (partially due to staggering minutes between the starters), and could potentially outperform Clevland's supporting cast. But again, they just have to show up. They've been a wild card for much of the year, and that was evident yet again in the last series when Boston's bench scored five points in Game 6 and 48 points in Game 7. Outscoring the Cav's bench is essential to lighten the pressure on the starters when LeBron is in the game.


It will be tough. It will be frustrating at times. But at their best, the Celtics are capable of at least make this thing a series. I'll say Cavs in 6, and even that feels generous.

What do you think are the key factors to this series? What's your prediction?


Follow Erik Johnson on Twitter: @erikjohnson32

Photo by David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Erik Johnson 5/17/2017 09:00:00 AM Edit
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