INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — For the second straight Eastern Conference finals and the third time in the past four postseasons, the Cleveland Cavaliers will face off against the Boston Celtics. But so much has changed, for both teams, from last year until now.
For starters, All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving has switched sides. However, he won’t be able to do any damage against his former team the way he did last spring to his current team, when he put up 25.8 points and 5.4 assists against the Celtics in the conference finals. Irving is sidelined for the series after undergoing a season-ending knee procedure in April.
“It’s tough to see him over there when we did play against him, because he’s a big part of what we did,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “Winning the championship together, those days will never be lost. … It’s still the same love and the same respect because you’ve been through so much to win that championship. He’s a big part of what we did here, and it is kind of weird seeing him on the other side.”
As strange as Irving’s past 12 months might have been in joining the other side of the Cleveland-Boston rivalry, they can hardly compare with what the Cavs have been through. Cleveland’s tumultuous year included the Irving trade for former Celtics star Isaiah Thomas; a general manager change; a litany of injuries up and down the rotation; an explosive team meeting that went public; a major roster overhaul at the trade deadline; a disclosure of mental health struggles by one of its stars; and an in-season leave of absence by the head coach for health reasons.
Yet, both conference finalists have endured a remarkable sequence of events to get where they are. In addition to the Irving injury, the Celtics also lost their marquee free-agent signee, Gordon Hayward, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the first quarter of his Boston debut in Cleveland on opening night.
“It’s become expected, at least, us being the Cavs and all,” Kevin Love said when asked to compare the two teams’ recent history. “I think because of how it started with them, two minutes into their season they lose an All-Star in Gordon Hayward, a guy who plays the game the right way and has played for [coach Brad] Stevens before, goes in there and is going to be a great fit for them. That was obviously tough. And them coming back and playing great from that, even right after that, I know they lost one game and then won a bunch straight. Then losing Kyrie, their No. 1 option, for the playoffs, and then everybody really stepping up.
“There’s been a lot that’s happened throughout the season with us and for them. … In some ways it could be looked at as a surprise, but I think both teams stepped up their level of play.”
According to MyTopSportsBooks.com, the Celtics have 7-3 odds to advance to the NBA Finals. Had Irving been healthy, those odds would have been almost a push at 20-19. And had both Irving and Hayward been healthy, Boston would have been the outright favorites at 5-6.
“That would have definitely changed the series, but that’s not taking away from anything they’ve done,” Love said when asked about what type of impact Irving would make if healthy. “A number of those guys have stepped up, especially in their backcourt. ‘Scary’ Terry [Rozier] has played great for them.”
“They just keep plugging guys in and keep playing,” Lue said. “He’s done a great job with that team. It doesn’t surprise you because they’re well-coached, and [general manager] Danny Ainge has done a good job of getting guys in that fit that mold of Celtics basketball, and they’ve been playing well.”
They’ve also been playing with house money. After the Celtics’ two major injuries, the outside pressure of championship expectations, as evidenced by the betting odds, was vanquished. The Cavs, on the other hand, have the league’s second-largest payroll this season, not to mention a Finals streak to uphold for both the franchise (three years straight) and its best player, LeBron James (seven years straight).
Love was asked why the Cavs seemingly take on a carnival-like atmosphere every season, whereas Boston has mostly gone under the radar.
“It’s just probably — I don’t want this to be surface level, but probably because we have LeBron,” Love said. “Most likely. I mean, it just seems to [follow him]. … I imagine that a lot of the teams in the league have stuff that doesn’t come to surface, and we don’t find out about it. It just so happens that, kind of since Bron came back here, that that has been the case, and it just tends to follow us, good or bad. But we’ve always came out the other end in a very positive way.
“We’ve always said we thrive under the chaos, and that’s just always been the case. It’s always been something new and fresh, so I guess it’s entertaining. But I think that sense of — maybe ‘camaraderie’ is the wrong word — togetherness or being familiar with one another just becomes that much more tight-knit at the end of the day. Maybe some things are worse than others, some things are better than others, some things get blown out of proportion, but in some way, when we cross the lines, we’re able to go to work.”
Lue said he “hates” the added attention his team attracts, but said his group finds itself in a good spot heading into Sunday’s Game 1 (3:30 ET, ABC).
“Just having the injuries early, not having a point guard with I.T. being out ’til January, Tristan [Thompson] being out for a while, Kevin being hurt again and missing six weeks. We just had a lot of injuries,” Lue said. “A lot of guys in and out of the rotations. But we were able to keep plugging away. It’s been a good situation for us. I think we find out who we are. … We’ve just got to continue to keep getting better throughout the course of these playoffs.”