BOSTON -- This is it!
The game we all knew was coming, but few anticipated would have so much on the line: The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers facing off, with the winner assuming first place in the Eastern Conference with just a handful of games remaining.
- Watch the game at 8pm on CSN, or stream it on CSNNE.com or via the NBC Sports App
While the incentive to win is strong for both teams, the Celtics need this win more than Cleveland.
Boston trails the head-to-head series 2-1, and a loss tonight to the Cavs would give them the series and with that, the tie-breaker in case these two finish with identical regular-season records.
But if the Celtics win and the season series is tied, a slew of tie-breaker rules will come into place, which could swing the top seed in Boston’s favor.
Before getting too caught up in talking about a tie-breaker, let’s take a look at the game at hand first.
Here’s a look at key matchups in what should be one of the best games of the season.
Point guards: Isaiah Thomas vs. Kyrie Irving
Thomas is the top scorer in the Eastern Conference, averaging 29.1 points per game. As good as he's been, the 5-foot-9 Thomas has been even better in the three meetings earlier this season against Cleveland. In those three games, he has averaged 30.7 points per game while shooting 50 percent from the field. Irving ranks among the game’s best one-on-one scorers, and is clearly an elite. In the three games against Boston this season, he has lit the Celtics up for 27.7 points per game while shooting 57.4 percent from the field. But the difference between these two lies in their defense. Thomas’ defensive rating against the Cavs is 108.6. Irving’s defensive rating against Boston this season is noticeably worst at 123.1.
Shooting guard: Avery Bradley vs. J.R. Smith
Both players have missed significant chunks of the season due to injuries and illnesses, but there’s no question Bradley is the one in a better rhythm currently. He's Boston’s No. 2 scorer at 16.6 points per game, and its No. 2 rebounder (6.2) as well. Meanwhile, Smith is still trying to get his conditioning and shooting touch up to par after missing most of this season because of a thumb injury. He should be in a nice groove by the time the playoffs roll around, but don’t expect a huge offensive explosion from the veteran guard tonight.
Small forward: Jae Crowder vs LeBron James
Crowder is having a career season in several categories, and should be a name to consider to be named to one of the league’s All-Defensive teams. But like just about every small forward not named Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard, facing LeBron James will be an uphill battle. And that’s assuming Crowder (swollen left elbow) will be able to play tonight. James typically carries a heavy load every year, but it seems the Cavs have leaned on the perennial All-Star more than usual. You have to wonder just how much of a toll that will take on James leading up to the playoffs.
Power forward: Al Horford vs Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson or LeBron James
With Tristan Thompson (thumb) out, the Cavs will go with quickness (Jefferson), a stretch big (Frye) or their best player (James) tonight. If James gets the start at power forward, look for Iman Shumpert or Kyle Korver to get the starting nod. Whichever player the Cavs start at power forward, Horford will have an advantage in the block offensively. Let the chess match begin.
Center: Amir Johnson vs Kevin Love
This is a classic matchup between Mr. Intangibles (Johnson) and Mr. stat packer (Love). Both have a tremendous impact on the game for their respective teams. Johnson’s hustle for loose balls, his on-the-ball defense as well as the role he plays as a help defender, have all contributed to his success this season even when his minutes have been cut back significantly. As for Love, he’s one of the best rebounding big men in the NBA and has a perimeter game that teams have to respect as well as the ability to score around the rim. This will be a matchup to keep a close eye on that will far in determining tonight’s winner.
For the Celtics, this group’s success may be impacted by the status of Crowder, who would most likely be replaced by Jaylen Brown or Marcus Smart in the starting lineup. Either way, the second unit’s power would be reduced, which puts a greater premium on Kelly Olynyk to have a big game. The Cavs have a very perimeter-oriented bench led by Iman Shumpert, along with veterans Deron Williams, Richard Jefferson and Kyle Korver. The lone big man that sees time for the Cavs now is Channing Frye, who is more of a stretch big who doesn’t spend a ton of time around the rim. In addition to Olynyk, don’t be surprised if the Celtics get a big game scoring from Gerald Green or Terry Rozier.
Brad Stevens isn’t likely to get much support for Coach of the Year honors, but that doesn’t take away from what he’s done this season, particularly in preparation for big games like tonight’s against Cleveland. The Cavs are playing for the second time in as many nights, so there’s the potential that they could be catching the Cavs at the right time in terms of being a bit worn down. This is where Tyronn Lue’s coaching acumen is really tested. The Cavs may be the champs, but they have been on the ropes for a good stretch of the season only to find a way to win the games that they absolutely must have. A lot of credit goes to LeBron James, obviously. But some of the praise should go to Lue as well.