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.”