Published May 03, 2016
(SportsNetwork.com) - LeBron James made ripples in the NBA world when he told SI's Lee Jenkins his reasons for returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
He didn't promise multi championships like he did when he took his talents to South Beach and knew there was work to be done in Cleveland.
James and the Cavaliers were able to capture a Central Division crown, the first since the 2009-10 season, the No. 2 seed in the East and the second-best record in the conference.
The Cavs will face the No. 7 seed Boston Celtics in the quarterfinals, which begins Sunday at Quicken Loans Arena.
Cleveland is a place James learned to run, where he cried and where he bled.
"People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I'm their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me," James told Jenkins. "I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now."
James, who opted out of the final two years of his contract with the Heat and left $42 million on the table, helped the Cavs end a four-year playoff drought and teamed up with All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Love, of course, landed in Cleveland after being dealt by Minnesota and the start of his new job didn't go so smoothly.
It took a while for everything to click, and after some criticism by James, a two-time NBA champion and four-time MVP, the Cavs started to roll and later grabbed their fourth Central title in franchise history. The Cavaliers, who won 12 in a row from Jan. 15 to Feb. 5, started the season 19-20, then went a 34-9 run over the final 43 games.
The Cavs took time to flourish under new coach David Blatt and even won 18 in a row at one point at Quicken Loans Arena.
Meanwhile, the Celtics benefited from a weak East to reach the playoffs for a seventh time in the past eight tries. They recorded 25 wins a year ago and are seven years removed from winning an NBA title.
Boston didn't make an impact on the postseason race until early February, when it opened a stretch of 14 wins over 20 games. It got a bit rough after that when the Celtics dropped five of seven games before ending the regular season on a high note and punching a ticket to the playoffs.
"To have a chance to compete against the very best in the league is a great opportunity," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of facing Cleveland.
The Celtics and Cavaliers split four meetings in the regular season. Boston eliminated Cleveland in six games in the 2010 semifinals and is 18-12 all-time against the Cavs in postseason play. In 158 career playoff games (all starts), James is averaging 28.0 points, 8.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists.
BACKCOURT: Irving is arguably the best point guard in the East and averaged more than 20 points for a third consecutive season. He has posted an average of five or more assists since breaking into the league in 2011-12. Irving is the reason why the Cavs finished in the top 10 in scoring with more than 100 points per game and his job is fairly easy dishing to James, Love and backcourt mate J.R. Smith. Smith did a 180-degree turnaround when he came over from New York and is a dangerous threat from 3-point range. Smith can learn a thing or two from Irving on defense, however.
The Celtics traded their top point guard in Rajon Rondo back in December, leaving backcourt duties to Avery Bradley and rookie Marcus Smart. Smart is supposed to be one of the building blocks of the future for the Celtics and will get his feet wet in the playoffs. He's not as quick or generous as Rondo, but Smart plays with intensity and grit. Boston, though, will not rely on Smart for points. Bradley led the Celtics in scoring and will give Cleveland issues with his quickness.
FRONTCOURT: There's no need to decipher which team has the best frontcourt, but a breakdown must be made. James, who was third in scoring with 25.3 ppg, is in line for another MVP honor and is the best in basketball. His leadership skills are beyond reproach and he can distribute the ball when scoring isn't an option. James plays tough defense and will make it difficult for Boston to keep pace. Love posted almost 40 double-doubles and at times seemed out of place in his new digs. He got over it, though, and will get a taste of the postseason for the first time. Love is a deep threat as well as an inside presence, but likes to catch and shoot.
Big man Timofey Mozgov filled a glaring need when he was acquired from the Denver Nuggets in early January. His services were needed when Anderson Varejao was lost for the season with an Achilles injury. Mozgov has been to the playoffs before, but hasn't had much success.
"We've been playing the right way - win, lose or draw - we've played the right way," James said. "We've stuck to our system and I think it's built some great habits for us going into the postseason."
Evan Turner has never lived up to his No. 2 overall selection status back in 2010, but has been an admirable piece to the Boston puzzle. Turner recorded three triple-doubles this season and has an average all-around game. He is smooth on the dribble and an accurate shooter. Still, he has his hands full with James on the wing. Brandon Bass is a savvy veteran and has flown under the radar most of his career. Bass can break out at times, too.
Celtics center Tyler Zeller won't be much of a factor in this series. Zeller played his first two seasons in the league with Cleveland, but this a different Cavs team he is used to.
BENCH: If there's any advantage the Celtics may have in this series, it's their bench. Isaiah Thomas, who deserves to start but does damage off the pine, was a major acquisition this season and will be relied on heavily to put the ball into the basket. Thomas is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger will be at Stevens' disposal when the starters need a breather. Not too long ago, Sullinger made a surprise return from a stress fracture in his foot and is getting back into the flow.
Boston led the NBA in bench points with 41.4 ppg.
"It's all coming together. It's pretty cool to see," Olynyk said. "We're excited to get this next chapter rolling."
The Cavs, who had the lowest point total from their reserves (24.2 ppg), landed Iman Shumpert when they received Smith from the Knicks and he has contributed sparingly. After landing Smith and Shumpert, the Cavs led the league in 3-pointers made per game at 11.6. Tristan Thompson is Blatt's best option from the group of reserves, while James Jones and Matthew Dellavedova see a healthy amount of action off the bench. Veteran Shawn Marion's defensive prowess will make an appearance in his final season in the NBA.
"I'm not on the committee and I'm not the determining vote, but in my opinion there will come a time where Shawn Marion will be in the Hall of Fame. That is my true belief," Blatt said. "That's not a vain attempt to push his chances. I truly believe that. That's a deserving, long-time, high-level, championship- winning, impactful player in the NBA."
COACHING: Coaching will be an even aspect for this series, as Blatt is in his first season as an NBA head coach and Stevens is in his second. Stevens had a bevy of success with Butler at the NCAA level and Celtics general manager Danny Ainge is mapping out a plan for his baby-faced coach. Defense was an issue in the regular season and the Celtics allowed more than 100 points.
"You get a chance to participate in the playoffs, you get a chance to play against the best, and we're getting a chance right out of the gate to do both," Stevens said. "It's an opportunity for all of us to see where we stand."
Stevens was named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for April.
Blatt's club allowed almost 100 points and it took time for the first-year coach to adjust to the new players, especially James. Blatt was recently the coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel and spent 33 years as a player and coach in Europe after playing collegiately at Princeton. Blatt maximized the talents of Maccabi Tel Aviv and guided the team to the Euroleague championship. He also led Russia to a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
Blatt and Stevens are no stranger to pressure games in their coaching tenures.
PREDICTION: The Cavaliers were the second-best team in the Eastern Conference behind the Atlanta Hawks, and this series will be an appetizer for the semifinals. There will be at least two games in which Blatt rests his starters in the fourth quarter en route to a sweep of this first-round series. Boston should have nothing to feel sorry about because they persevered and took advantage of a feeble conference. Boston didn't expect to be in this position at the start of the season and will learn a few lessons from Cleveland on what it takes to be a contender.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: CAVALIERS IN FOUR