LeBron James sees underdog Celtics as 'a challenge' in Eastern Conference Finals

LeBron James sees underdog Celtics as 'a challenge' in Eastern Conference Finals

BOSTON – No matter how the numbers stack up, hearing a coach and his players talk about an elite team as being better than they were sounds like predictable hyperbole.

But in the case of the Cleveland Cavaliers who have been talked up by the Celtics and their players well before tonight’s Game 1 Eastern Conference finals matchup was determined … the hype is real.

Despite having home court advantage in this series, the Celtics understand all too well that they are indeed an underdog in their own building tonight.

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens began noticing the shift into playoff-mode by the Cavs defensively in late-March and early April.

“That was the time where everyone was talking about their defense and everything else,” Stevens said. “You're watching it on film and you're like, ‘they're going to go to a different level and they have.’

While Cleveland still doesn’t play elite level defense, there’s no mistaking their improved play at that end of the floor.

In March, Cleveland had a defensive rating of 113.1 which ranked 29th in the NBA. The following month, their defensive rating improved to 108.2 which ranked 18th in the league.

Meanwhile, their offensive rating in March (110.2) and April (111.1) ranked seventh and fifth, respectively, in the NBA. 

But in the playoffs, LeBron James and company have unleashed a lethal brand of offensive damage on teams with a postseason offensive rating of 117.0 which is tops in the NBA.

“We just want to try and get better each month,” James said. “I believe from March to April, we got better. We’re a better team, better equipped for situations. We have a challenge right now. We look forward to the challenge that this Celtics team provides. We’re looking forward to it.”

Boston has stepped up its game at both ends of the floor in the playoffs as well, with a defensive rating of 110.8 that ranks fifth among playoff teams.

The Celtics also average 13.1 made 3-pointers which trails only Cleveland (14.1) among playoff teams.

“We have to understand that’s one of their main focuses,” James said. “We have to cover the 3-point line. Looking at the scoreboard, Game 7 (against Washington) they took 26 (3-pointers) in Game 7 and it looked like Washington kind of covered it pretty good. We have to understand that this is something that they do.  I.T. (Isaiah Thomas) is getting up nine, 10 a game but it’s not just him. Avery (Bradley), Jae Crowder, (Kelly) Olynyk, the rest of those guys, (Al) Horford is shooting a high clip now. We have to protect the 3-point line.”

And the Celtics have the third-best defense among playoff teams with a defensive rating of 105.5 with only Golden State (97.9) and Milwaukee (101.5) being better.

Even with the success, Boston has had in the postseason thus far, there’s still a sense that the defending champs aren’t just good – but better than ever.

“I think they understand each other as a team now,” Bradley said.  “They have a great group of guys that understands all their roles and I think LeBron James is doing a great job of getting everyone involved. Not only him but Kyrie as well. Those guys are a team. The best teams are teams that are … they play off each other, they all accept roles and it makes basketball fun and you can tell that's how they play.”

Ainge: 'Setback' wrong word to use about Hayward

Ainge: 'Setback' wrong word to use about Hayward

When is a setback not a setback?

When Danny Ainge says, "You know what? Sometimes I talk too much," Ainge told the Boston Herald over the weekend. "'Setback' wasn't the right word, so let me rephrase that because it's not exactly true to say it - or say it that way.

The Celtics president of basketball operations, in his weekly radio interview with Toucher and Rich on 98.5 The Sports Hub and simulcast on NBC Sports Boston, used that word when he was describing how Gordon Hayward is coming along in his recovery. 

"He had like one setback for a couple of weeks, maybe a month and a half ago," Ainge said on the radio last week. "We were progressing a little bit too fast, we thought."

Ainge clarified that to the Herald's Steve Bulpett. 

"What happened is he went on the AlterG [anti-gravity treadmill] the first day and he felt some soreness," he said. "It was the first day he tried the AlterG, a long time ago. He just wasn't ready for it at that point. That's all it was."

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has been adamant that Hayward, recovering from his gruesome leg and ankle injury in the season opener, will not play for the Celtics this season. On Sunday, Stevens, via MassLive.com's Jay King, characterized Stevens' soreness as a "small" issue. 



Chest pains and lack of sleep lead to medical leave for Cavs coach Lue

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Chest pains and lack of sleep lead to medical leave for Cavs coach Lue

CLEVELAND - Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue is taking a leave of absence from the team to address health issues that have included chest pains and loss of sleep.

Lue said Monday in a statement that tests have offered no conclusion about what the issue is and offered no timetable for his return. The coach said he feels he needs to step away "and focus on trying to establish a stronger and healthier foundation" from which to coach the rest of the season.

Here's a portion of Lue's statement:

I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year. Despite a battery of tests, there have been no conclusions as to what the exact issue is.

"While I have tried to work through it, the last thing I want is for it to affect the team. I am going to use this time to focus on a prescribed routine and medication, which has previously been difficult to start in the midst of a season," Lue said. "My goal is to come out of it a stronger and healthier version of myself so I can continue to lead this team to the championship we are all working towards."

A stress-filled season for the Cavs has taken a toll on the Lue, 40, a former Celtics assistant under Doc Rivers who led them to the 2016 NBA championship after taking over for David Blatt midway through that season. They are j40-29, third in the Eastern Conference, behind the second-place Celtics and East-leading Toronto Raptors, and have endured roster shake-ups, injuries and other distractions as they try to return to the NBA Finals.

David Aldridge of TNT reports that the plan is for Lue to return in a week. The NBA playoffs begin April 14. 

"We all want great players, we all want the best teams, but with that comes a lot of pressure as well. And what Ty Lue has had to go through this year with that team, with the trades and the injuries and the pressure, it's unrelenting," Denver coach Michael Malone said. "So I hope that he gets healthy and is able to get back in time for the playoffs and help that team win as many games as possible."

Lue spent the second half of Cleveland's victory in Chicago on Saturday in the locker room because of an illness, the second time this season he left a game because he wasn't feeling well. The former NBA guard also sat one out against Chicago at home in December.

Associate head coach Larry Drew coached the second half of Saturday's game, the finale of a six-game, 11-day road trip. Cleveland is back home to host Milwaukee on Monday.

"We know how difficult these circumstances are for Coach Lue and we support him totally in this focused approach to addressing his health issues," general manager Koby Altman said.

Charlotte coach Steve Clifford also left his team to address his health this season. He took six weeks off. Medical tests revealed that the 56-year-old Clifford did not have any internal problems, but the doctor's diagnosis was the coach was suffering from severe sleep deprivation.

AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds contributed to this report.

© 2018 by The Associated Press