Ryan Knaus

Playoff Preview

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NBA Eastern Finals Preview

Friday, May 11, 2018


The Cavaliers and Celtics are set to clash in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight season, with a twist. Only four players remain from the Celtics' 2016-17 roster that lost to Cleveland in five games. The Cavs weathered a chaotic season and a massive roster shakeup at the trade deadline, storming past Indiana and Toronto in the postseason thanks to the efforts of LeBron James, "who has been transcendent in 42.4 minutes per game." That quote comes directly from my 2017 ECF preview -- the only difference is that LeBron is averaging 41.4 minutes this year.

 

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Injuries are an unavoidable backdrop for Boston in this series. Kyrie Irving won't be playing for his current team vs. his former team, due to knee surgery. Boston's prized offseason acquisition, Gordon Hayward, hasn't played all season. The Celtics also lost valuable rotation player Daniel Theis to knee surgery in mid-March, and they're not expecting Shane Larkin (shoulder) to return in this series. Jaylen Brown played through a hamstring injury in the second round but will have rested for three full days prior to Game 1 of the ECF, so presumably he'll be cleared for a full allotment of minutes. Jayson Tatum nicely summed up the Celtics' underdog mentality: "After Gordon, Kyrie, Marcus and Theis went down, no one expected us to go to the Eastern Conference finals ... We just continue to prove people wrong and have fun while we're doing it."

 

The Cavs enter the series in good health, but they've been through the ringer themselves this year, as coach Ty Lue noted recently. "Not having a point guard [Isaiah Thomas] being out until January, Tristan [Thompson] being out for a while, Kevin [Love] being hurt again and missing six weeks," Lue said. "We just had a lot of injuries, a lot of guys in and out of the rotations. But we were able to keep plugging away." With all that drama in the rearview mirror, the stage is set for what should be a fantastic Conference finals.

 

Regular-season matchups

 

We'll begin with LeBron's splits vs. Boston's defenders in three regular-season matchups this season. I've sorted from most possessions to fewest -- for instance, Jaylen Brown averaged 28.5 possessions as the primary defender on LeBron, and during those possessions LBJ shot 53.3% from the field with a poor assist-to-turnover ratio.

 

LeBron James stats vs. Boston defenders

Matchup

Possessions

Points

FG%

3PT%

Assists

Turnovers

Jaylen Brown

28.5

9.5

53.3

20

2

1.5

Marcus Morris

27.5

12

50

50

5

0.5

Semi Ojeleye

13

2

50

0

1.3

0.3

Marcus Smart

6

3

75

0

2

0

Jayson Tatum

4

2.7

80

0

0.7

0

Al Horford

3.3

0.7

33.3

0

0

0.3

Kyrie Irving

3.3

1.3

50

0

0

0.3

Terry Rozier

3

2

100

0

0

0

Daniel Theis

2

1

0

0

0

0

Aron Baynes

1.7

0

0

0

0.3

0.3

 

Boston stuck primarily with Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris, with Semi Ojeleye also drawing the toughest defensive assignment a significant amount of time. Granted, LeBron shot at least 50% against all three of those guys. Brad Stevens seems notably cautious about having rookie Jayson Tatum guard LeBron, which makes sense -- with LeBron on the court this season the Cavs' opponents committed 15.6 personal fouls per game. That's the 11th-highest rate for any player in the NBA, trailing only guys like James Harden, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Lou Williams. With the Celtics thinner than usual due to injuries, they can ill-afford to have Tatum in foul trouble, so I'm expecting the bulk of the work to fall to the guys who handled it in the regular season -- Brown, Morris and Ojeleye. More on that later.

 

Below you'll find each team's splits in their three matchups this season, but there's a glaring asterisk with this information -- they've only played each other once since Cleveland's massive shake-up at the trade deadline, and Kevin Love didn't play in that game. Look at the Cavs' splits vs. Boston, for instance:

 

 

Usage %

MIN

PTS

FG%

REB

AST

STL

BLK

TOs

Fantasy Points

LeBron James

27.1%

33.9

24

53.7%

10.3

8.3

0.7

1.3

3.3

51.6

Derrick Rose

10.8%

31.3

14

35.7%

4

2

0

0

2

19.8

Jae Crowder

30.6%

31.3

8.5

22.7%

7

2

1

0

1

21.9

Dwyane Wade

11.8%

25.7

6.5

25.0%

2

1.5

1.5

1

2.5

16.2

Tristan Thompson

13.9%

25.4

7

66.7%

7

1.3

0

0.7

1.3

18.1

Kevin Love

12.7%

24.5

8.5

25.0%

8

1

0

1

1.5

21.1

J.R. Smith

21.9%

23.8

11.7

70.0%

4.3

1

0.7

0.7

0.7

21.7

Jordan Clarkson

18.1%

23.2

17

63.6%

3

1

2

0

0

28.1

George Hill

14.3%

21.2

12

37.5%

3

1

0

0

3

14.1

Larry Nance Jr.

23.6%

21

5

40.0%

4

3

1

0

0

17.3

Jeff Green

0.0%

19.3

9.7

36.0%

2

0.3

0

0.7

2

12.6

Cedi Osman

21.6%

19.2

7

55.6%

3

1

0.5

0

1

12.6

Rodney Hood

14.2%

18.5

15

54.5%

3

0

1

1

1

23.6

Kyle Korver

27.8%

16.3

6

46.2%

1.7

1

0

0.3

0

10.5

Iman Shumpert

23.7%

12.9

4

66.7%

2

0

1

0

1

8.4

Jose Calderon

0.129

11.1

3

0.4

1

1

0.5

0

0.5

6.7

Channing Frye

0.244

5.6

0

0

2

1

0

1

0

6.9

John Holland

0.311

3.6

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Ante Zizic

0.167

3.4

2

1

0

0

0

0

0

2

 

Derrick Rose, who finished the year with a burst of relevance for the Wolves, averaged 31.3 minutes in one appearance vs. Boston while still with the Cavs. Dwyane Wade also averaged 25.7 minutes in two games, while Jae Crowder averaged 31.3 minutes. That's a lot of playing time up for grabs, with the obvious recipients being Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Jeff Green and Jordan Clarkson.

 

LeBron was typically ridiculous vs. Boston this year, averaging 24.0 points, 10.3 rebounds, 8.3 assists and 1.3 blocks. It added up to 51.6 fantasy points per game, even though he averaged a relatively modest 33.9 minutes per game. He'll be around 40 minutes in this series, of course, and we can expect closer to his postseason average of 63.6 fantasy points. Incidentally, that leads everyone in the playoffs by a significant margin -- among players still active, the next-closest are James Harden (51.5), Kevin Durant (48.3) and Draymond Green (46.9).

 

It's also worth noting that LeBron's usage rate was just 27.1% during those three regular-season games vs. Boston. So far this postseason he's up to 35.2% usage, second among qualifying players behind only Harden (36.7%). That's one more reason to expect LeBron's fantasy binge to continue unabated. Kevin Love's usage rate was also abnormally low in two games vs. the Celts, at just 12.7%. That figure has nearly doubled to 23.1% in the playoffs.

 

And here are Boston's splits vs. the Cavs:

 

 

Usage %

MIN

PTS

FG%

REB

AST

STL

BLK

TOs

Fantasy Points

Jaylen Brown

22.1%

33.8

14.7

40.0%

7

1.7

1.3

0

1.7

27.9

Jayson Tatum

19.1%

31.3

12.7

40.5%

5.7

2

0.3

0

1

22.5

Kyrie Irving

24.7%

31.3

17

44.4%

5.3

7

1.3

0

2

35.9

Marcus Smart

24.5%

31

13.5

36.7%

6.5

3.5

1.5

1

2

32.1

Al Horford

15.5%

28.3

9.7

50.0%

7.3

4.7

0.7

1

2

28.5

Marcus Morris

18.2%

24.8

10

38.9%

3.5

1

0.5

0.5

1

17.7

Terry Rozier

25.4%

24.4

16.7

48.5%

5.3

3.3

1.3

0.7

1.7

32.4

Semi Ojeleye

10.0%

18.7

1.3

9.1%

1

0.3

0.7

0

0.3

4.7

Aron Baynes

13.6%

16.2

4.7

60.0%

5

1

0.3

0.3

1

13.2

Greg Monroe

18.9%

11.8

5

50.0%

5

1

1

1

1

17.5

Daniel Theis

13.2%

8

5

75.0%

1.5

1

0

0

0

8.3

Abdel Nader

31.4%

6.6

3

33.3%

0

0.5

0

0

1.5

2.3

Gordon Hayward

15.4%

5.3

2

50.0%

1

0

0

0

0

3.2

Shane Larkin

6.1%

3.7

0

0.0%

0.5

0

0

0

0

0.6

Guerschon Yabusele

17.0%

2.7

0

0.0%

1

0

0

0

0

1.2

 

Again, it's hard to read much into these numbers because they came while Kyrie Irving was healthy and still leading the team in scoring, assists and usage. Still, it's instructive to note that Terry Rozier was already effective in 24.4 minutes per game, averaging 16.7 points on 48.5% shooting, including 47.1% from beyond the arc. He chipped in across-the-board stats and averaged 32.4 fantasy points in those three matchups, which is a stellar 1.33 fantasy points per minute. For perspective, the league leader this season was Anthony Davis at 1.51.

 

In addition to Rozier and stalwart Al Horford, the Celtics have benefited from breakout performances from Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart in the postseason. One guy who hasn't played well is Marcus Morris, who comes in shooting 35.4% in 12 playoff games, down from 42.9% during the regular season. Ominously, Morris also struggled in his two games vs. the Cavs this year, averaging 10.0 points on 38.9% shooting -- and if he's tasked with defending LeBron for long stretches, as seems likely, he'll have even less energy to expend on offense. He's capable of getting hot at a moment's notice, providing a much-needed offensive spark for the second unit, but I'll be shying away from him for DFS purposes.

 

 

Lineups

 

The Cavs have a dozen lineups that have played at least 10 minutes together in the postseason. Rather than list them all, which would quickly become tedious, I'll pull out some highlights:

 

The best net rating among the 12-most-used lineups has been devoid of a traditional point guard -- LeBron James, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. Essentially, that's Cleveland going all-in on shooting, rebounding and LeBron. That unit came to the forefront in the series vs. Toronto and we're likely to see it again vs. Boston, since they've racked up an impressive offensive rating (121.7) and a respectable defensive rating (99.5), good for a +22.2 net rating.

 

The best defensive unit among these 12 lineups has been a small-ball group with Kevin Love at center. Joining him are LeBron James (naturally), George Hill, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green. That group has only played 15 minutes together across three games, however, so the sample size is too small to draw lasting conclusions. 

 

Easily the most-common lineup has been George Hill, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, LeBron and Kevin Love -- they've played 110 minutes over seven games and have accrued an impressive +17.5 net rating in that span. That's the unit that started all four games during Cleveland's sweep of the Raptors in the second round. Incidentally, that result may have triggered Toronto's decision to fire coach Dwane Casey just two days after he was named Coach of the Year -- the NBA can be brutally unforgiving. Unless the Cavs come out flat in Games 1 & 2, there's no reason to think coach Ty Lue will mess with his starting unit's chemistry.

 

Considering LeBron's massive workload, it's no surprise that only one lineup has played at least 10 minutes together without him. That honor goes to Kevin Love and the bench unit -- Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Jeff Green, Larry Nance Jr. and Love. Hood features in quite a few of these 12-most-frequent lineups, but that's largely due to the first round vs. Milwaukee when George Hill was ailing. Considering he declined to play during garbage time in Game 4 vs. the Raptors, telling his coach to "just let [Jose Calderon] play" instead, it's likely he'll continue to rack up DNP-CDs vs. the Celtics.

 

Moving to the Boston side of things, they've had 13 unique lineups share the court for 10+ minutes in the postseason, led by a unit that hasn't started a single game -- Marcus Morris alongside Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford. That's the most potent offensive group the Celtics can field with their current roster, and sure enough they're averaging 128.6 points per 100 possessions. They're also giving up 110.2 points per 100, but that's still a strong net rating of +18.4. Expect to see plenty of this group.

 

The second-most-common lineup has been the typical starting unit, featuring the above guys but with Aron Baynes replacing Morris. Baynes' role will be fascinating to watch throughout this series. He started more than 80% of Boston's games this season and he was instrumental to their success vs. Joel Embiid and the Sixers. His size kept Embiid in check (relatively) as a threat in the paint, and his unlikely 3-point binge helped draw the Sixers center toward the perimeter -- Baynes shot 7-of-16 from downtown vs. Philly, which was more made 3-pointers than he had in his entire career prior to that series. He shot 14.3% from deep in the regular season and it's doubtful that Boston will encourage him to fire away, especially since he can better take advantage of his size inside vs. the small-ball Cavs.

 

The third-most-common lineup has been that same core group (Rozier, Brown, Tatum and Horford) with Semi Ojeleye inserted into the mix. The 23-year-old rookie started multiple games vs. Milwaukee in the first round, helping to counter the Bucks' smaller lineups, and I won't be surprised if we see that again vs. the Cavaliers. As mentioned above, Ojeleye was one of the primary defenders (in a small sample size) vs. LeBron this regular season. Assigning him that responsibility would allow Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris to play 20+ minutes without the grueling task of checking LBJ and potentially getting into foul trouble. We'll see what coach Brad Stevens comes up with for Game 1 on Sunday.

 

 

Assorted News and Notes

 

The Celtics' best fantasy performers in the postseason have been Al Horford (averaging 37.7 fantasy points) and Terry Rozier (37.1). Compare that to LeBron's ridiculous 63.6 per game, and it's almost impossible to fade him even in multi-day DFS slates.

 

The Celtics' official Twitter account noted the following: "Excluding the NBA's inaugural season, the Celtics are the first team in NBA history to reach the Conference Finals after having 5 rookies play 30+ games during the regular season." They've advanced in the playoffs while relying on a core of inexperienced talent, while missing two All-Stars, yet Brad Stevens didn't get a single vote for Coach of the Year. Go figure.

 

During last year's Eastern Conference Finals, which the Cavs won in five games, Kevin Love averaged 22.6 points, 12.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks. He also made a ridiculous 4.6 triples per game on 53.5% shooting beyond the arc. That's one more reason to be skeptical that Boston will stay big with Aron Baynes and Al Horford in the frontcourt.

 

The Cavs and Celtics have met seven times in the postseason, with Cleveland holding a 20-19 overall record (13-6 in Cleveland, 7-13 in Boston). The history just adds a fun backstory to what is already a charged matchup -- per NBA.com, they've clashed in the playoffs in 1976, 1985, 1992, 2008, 2010, 2015 and 2017.

 

Jaylen Brown is coming off an incredible effort in Boston's closeout Game 5 win vs. Philly, scoring 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting in 31 minutes. That makes him one of just 25 rookie or sophomore players to score 24+ points on at least 75% shooting in the playoffs since 1964. The other players include guys like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (x2), James Worth (x2), David Robinson (x2), Byron Scott (x3) and Tim Duncan...but also Matt Maloney, Andres Nocioni and Daniel "Boobie" Gibson.

 

Among the 22 "experts" listed in ESPN's predictions for the Conference finals, 19 picked the Cavaliers to win the series. Only one writer (Nick Metallinos) picked the Cavs in five games, and among the three writers to pick the Celtics, only one (Marc Spears) had it ending in six games. The vast majority picked the Cavs to win in six or seven. For what it's worth, there were also just three ESPN experts who think Houston will beat Golden State to advance to the Finals (and all of them think it'd take seven games).



Despite residing in Portland, Maine, Ryan Knaus remains a heartbroken Sonics fan who longs for the days of Shawn Kemp and Xavier McDaniel. He has written for Rotoworld.com since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter.
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