Expectations regarding how far the Celtics would make it in this year’s playoffs have fluctuated from “NBA Finals or bust” two months ago, to “will be lucky to make it out of the first round” right after Kyrie Irving was ruled out, to “might be able to steal a game or two from Philly” a week ago. Today – as the Celtics sit with a comfy 3-0 series lead on the Sixers – those expectations should again be “NBA Finals or bust.”
For whatever reason, the Toronto Raptors collectively pee themselves at the sight of LeBron James – and because that is the case, the never-say-die Celtics will have another playoff meeting against the The King and the Cavaliers starting later this week. No team in NBA history has ever blown a 3-0 series lead, and both the Celtics and Cavs find themselves just one win away from an Eastern Conference Finals rematch.
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The Celtics match-up spectacularly well with the Sixers as they’ve been able to slow Ben Simmons to a crawl. Simmons enjoys an up-tempo pace but the C’s have been able to make the Sixers play a halfcourt game, and as a result the Sixers have had three straight “bad shooting nights.”
That is no coincidence.
The Celtics were the third best defensive team in the NBA regular season based on opponents points per game (100.4), and that theme has continued into the postseason as the Celtics are still giving up only 101.5 points per game (good for third in the playoffs).
The key, of course, has been the Celtics’ defense on Simmons – who runs the show in Philly. When things are going well for the Sixers, here is what The Ringer’s Paolo Uggetti wrote about Simmons: “Philly thrives on speed and fast breaks. Ben Simmons is a freight train in transition who can usually barrel his way to the rim or draw the defense to open space for the Sixers’ many 3-point threats.”
“A freight train in transition?”
“Barreling his way to the rim?”
“Drawing defense to open space for 3-point shooters?”
That sounds an awful lot like that No. 23 guy in Cleveland.
Of course, slowing down LeBron is a lot different than slowing down a wide-eyed rookie like Simmons. But the Celtics suddenly seem well-equipped to at least impede LeBron.
The Cavs needed Herculean efforts from LeBron to escape Indiana in Round 1, as in three of the four Cavs wins in that series he scored over 40 points.
In the series – which went the full seven games – Indiana held the Cavs to a highly impressive 94.9 points per game. And while the Pacers’ defense is good, it was not nearly as statistically strong as the Celtics’ during the regular season.
So … bring on LeBron!
Bring on the Cavs!
Somehow, someway – the expectations for this unbelievably gritty Celtics team are the same as they were two months ago.
NBA Finals or bust.