How likely is a Cleveland Cavaliers comeback from down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals, and what will it mean for LeBron James if the Cavs lose? Have Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown become untouchable for the Boston Celtics this postseason?
Our NBA experts answer the big questions before a huge Game 6.
1. Is this series more about the Celtics or more about the Cavs?
Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight: The Celtics. I’ve been adamant in saying that I don’t think we’ve ever seen a team rely on young talent — and yes, this team is full of considerable talent — that is this untested before. Literally no one would have looked at this team before the season and said it could reach the NBA Finals without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. LeBron is always a story, but we’ve known for a while that the Cavs have real deficiencies. We didn’t know the Celtics could do all this minus two All-Stars.
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: We’ll see, won’t we? If you subscribe to the idea that everything is about LeBron and/or what lies ahead for LeBron, then the answer is the Cavs. But if you believe that present events are just a preamble for the future, then this series is a signal for a long Pax Celtica that will reign in the Eastern Conference for years to come.
André Snellings, ESPN Fantasy: The Cavs, because the Celtics have less variance in their performance. Boston dips on the road, but in general, its level of effort is more predictable. On the other hand, Cleveland can play like champions one game then follow with a disinterested, lottery-like performance. And there’s always the sense that if the Cavaliers play to their level, they should be able to dictate which team will advance.
Micah Adams, ESPN Stats & Information: The temptation is to say the Celtics because they are already on the cusp of contention and look to be a force with serious staying power. But in the grand scheme of things, they could have lost in Round 1 and it wouldn’t have really altered their road map moving forward. On the other hand, the entire NBA axis revolves around LeBron. Even if you buy into the notion that Decision 3.0 doesn’t drastically change based on the outcome of this series, the voluminous speculation and potential ripple effect involving multiple franchises and star players mean the spotlight shines most brightly on Cleveland.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: It’s probably more about Cleveland. As well as Boston has played in the past two rounds, the Celtics still go through extended periods — like most road games — in which they struggle to make shots. The Cavaliers have been unable to take advantage because they’ve gotten so little production from their backcourt in their losses and because they’ve forced so few turnovers. Boston has attempted 23 more shots than Cleveland by virtue of turning the ball over on just 8.9 percent of plays in this series — far lower than any team managed over the course of the regular season (Minnesota led the league with an 11.4 percent turnover rate).
2. Rank these by which is most responsible for Cleveland’s issues:
A. Roster construction
C. Player performance
Pelton: C, A, B. This roster is undoubtedly flawed because of the way the Kyrie trade unexpectedly backfired, leaving the Cavaliers short a second playmaker on the perimeter and combo forward capable of shooting the 3 and switching on defense. Nonetheless, Cleveland should have enough talent to beat a short-handed Celtics team if everyone is performing as well as possible. Although I’d like to see Kyle Korver play more minutes no matter whether Semi Ojeleye does, I’d still put coaching a distant third.
Arnovitz: C, A, B. Some of the trouble is a product of personnel and the lack of players who are both efficient and versatile (the Cavs have plenty who are one or the other). But George Hill, who can guard multiple positions, spot up on the perimeter and cut off the ball, should be an ideal complementary point guard for LeBron James. Yet he has underperformed greatly in losses. JR Smith has always been an imperfect player, but he has been next to worthless. Kevin Love has been engaged but not sufficiently productive. Jordan Clarkson? He’s 10-for-32. So far as strategy is concerned, it might be time to see a bit more of Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr. at the expense of Smith and Jeff Green.
Herring: A, B and then C. Make no mistake: The players, in many cases, have performed terribly. But this team has so few players who can consistently impact both sides of the floor, making the Cavs the only team left in the playoffs with that problem. That’s a roster issue. Coaching hasn’t always been perfect, either. I’m still trying to wrap my head around Ty Lue’s comment about not being able to use Korver — who was coming off a strong Game 4 — because of how the Celtics were or weren’t using a seventh or eighth man.
Snellings: Player performance is the biggest issue. The Cavs have enough talent to be better than they are. Love is a quality second option, and there’s a solid mix of young promise and veteran role players around him and LeBron. The complete disappearing acts from large portions of the cast are mysterious, and that brings coaching and team strategy into question. But the Cavaliers clearly have more talent than they have displayed this postseason.
Adams: A, C, B. Between the cap-strapping, win-now-at-all-cost moves over the past several years, the Kyrie trade and the deals they made during the season — or didn’t make, with the Brooklyn pick — the Cavs painted themselves into this corner. And not necessarily to a fault, given that they have been operating without assurances from their franchise player and are two wins from reaching a fourth straight Finals. I don’t think anyone should be particularly surprised by the positive or negative play of anyone on Cleveland’s roster, nor do I think any particular strategy drastically changes the outlook for how this series has gone.
3. Fact or fiction: Jaylen Brown and/or Jayson Tatum should be untouchable in future trade talks.
Snellings: Fiction. Both have been incredibly impressive all season, and neither should be moved unless it’s a special deal. But Danny Ainge’s track record of trades is brilliant bordering on unfair, and he certainly has earned the latitude to make any trade without censure. Plus, you have to factor in Hayward, who gives the Celtics three extremely high-level wings on a team that could use an upgrade on the front line. Of the two, Tatum appears to be the more unique, generation-level talent who should be harder to part with.
Arnovitz: Fiction. Brown and Tatum are two of the best stories in basketball. Both are prototypical wings for winning basketball in 2018. But nobody, with a couple of generational exceptions, is untouchable in the NBA. For example, the Celtics could decide at a certain juncture that they can draw from this embarrassment of riches to aggregate the assets needed to acquire a top-five player looking for a new home.
Pelton: Fiction, but given Boston’s cap situation, I’d be hesitant to trade them for a veteran star. A key part of what makes Brown and Tatum so valuable is that they still have two and three years left on their relatively cheap rookie contracts — crucial for a team that is headed into the luxury tax soon. The Celtics also will have difficulty finding matching salary for a trade any time soon, given that Hayward, Irving and Al Horford are their three players making more than $7 million. It’s hard to put together a deal that makes sense for both teams.
Adams: Fact on both. In a positionless league in which the ability to defend three to four positions and the ability to score in a variety of ways are perhaps the two most in-demand traits, Brown and Tatum are Boston’s most important pieces moving forward, even more so than Irving and Hayward. Throw in that there are multiple seasons left before each gets paid — which allows for significant flexibility in building the roster — and these two should be utterly untouchable. That includes any trade for someone with the initials A.D.
Herring: Fact. I think you’d have to sooner give consideration to moving someone such as Hayward to a team that wants and needs a star. What this season has illustrated, to an extent, is that you don’t necessarily need every single grocery item you got from the store this past summer. It definitely doesn’t make sense to try to figure out how to exchange the best and cheapest food you got; instead, flip the expensive item and get a bunch of things in its place, if you can.
4. If the Cavs lose this series, what does that mean for LeBron’s future?
Arnovitz: A Cavs loss makes it less likely that he kicks the can down the road and re-ups with the Cavs next season while he waits for a more perfect confluence of circumstances to emerge elsewhere.
Pelton: With Boston and Philadelphia likely to make the competition in the East tougher going forward, I think he would look for another team that would give him a better chance of reaching the NBA Finals.
Snellings: All things being equal, I feel like LeBron should stay in Cleveland. However, the body language on this team hasn’t looked good in these playoffs. If the Cavs lose to a Celtics squad without Irving and Hayward, ending LeBron’s streak of Finals appearances, it could conceivably be the straw that tips him toward leaving the team.
Adams: I actually don’t think it changes much. If you buy into the notion that Cleveland was a long shot to beat either the Golden State Warriors or the Houston Rockets in the Finals anyway, losing in six or seven games to Boston isn’t much different than losing in four or five games to whichever team comes out of the West. Under that assumption, both results ultimately lead to the same conversations.
Herring: It should mean that he’s gone, since he already did what he vowed to do, which was win a title for his hometown Cavs. It’s somewhat difficult to imagine LeBron going West when the East can be won by a team this young. But it’s probably too early to tell which team would be the clubhouse favorite to land him if and when he does leave Cleveland.
5. What chance do you give the Cavs to win the series and why?
Adams: 50 percent. That’s probably higher than it should be — ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) gives Cleveland only a 15 percent chance of pulling this off — but I’m finished writing off LeBron in the East. Anything lower than 50 percent implies that it’s unlikely, which I have a hard time buying. Given the degree to which LeBron has normalized greatness, there isn’t a single thing James could do in Game 6 or 7 wins that I’d find unbelievable. Would anyone really be stunned if he tossed up back-to-back 50-point triple-doubles to carry Cleveland into the Finals? I know I wouldn’t.
Herring: I’d say 50 percent. Between LeBron’s performances in elimination scenarios and Boston’s generally horrendous play on the road this postseason, I trust that it will go to a seventh game. And if that happens, things can always get interesting. The Cavs would have to play so, so much better at TD Garden than they have to this point to even have a chance, though.
Snellings: I still give the Cavs a good chance to win this series because every indication suggests that they should defend their home court in Game 6 and send this to a deciding Game 7. If that happens, then it’s a toss-up between the talented, young Celtics having home-court advantage but little experience and the championship-tested Cavs led by the best player in the world.
Arnovitz: 37 percent. Figure the Cavs are 2-to-1 favorites on their home court on Friday in Game 6, then slight favorites in Game 7 on Sunday in Boston (say, 55 percent). My MacBook calculator indicates that factors to a 36.7 percent chance to win the series, even if Cleveland is favored in each game. Such is the burden of being down 3-2.
Pelton: About 25 percent. No matter how poorly the Celtics have played on the road this postseason, Cleveland isn’t a sure thing to win Game 6 at home, and the Cavs would be significant underdogs in Game 7 on the road. But where there’s LeBron, there’s a way.