Down 2-0 to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers are in unfamiliar playoff territory. Boston, on paper, has taken significant advantage of the series. The Celtics only have to win two out of the next five games to advance to the NBA finals for the first time since 2010. And although the Cavs appear to have arrived at the end of their playoff rollercoaster ride, it would be a grave mistake to write off Cleveland in this series.
In games one and two, the Celtics did not show anything we have not already seen from them. In their first round series against Milwaukee, Boston protected its home turf by winning all four home games. It also won all of its home games in the following series against Philadelphia. Therefore, it is only customary for the Celtics to have won both of their home games against the Cavaliers so far this series.
The past two games have made it abundantly clear that at-home Boston has a decided advantage over out-of-town competition. In Boston, the Celtic starters and bench play extremely well. They feed off of the crowd’s energy, play stifling defense, and know where their advantages are on offense.
A lot of the credit for Boston’s home-court domination, of course, goes to Brad Stevens. He has quickly established himself as a top coach in the NBA. That said, the absence of contribution from the Cleveland role players is also a major contributing factor this series. Besides LeBron James, there is no guarantee that any other Cleveland player can show up and perform on the road. At home, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, Tristan Thompson, even Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson have shown the ability to perform well. Maybe it’s the home crowd or familiar rims, but Cleveland happens to plays better at home.
So why is this important? If Boston only wins all of their home games, it would win the series anyway. But game sevens are always different. What happened over the course of the series doesn’t matter in a game seven. It’s a one-game, winner-takes-all, and may-the-best-man-win kind of game.
Over the course of his career, LeBron has shown that he can dominate Game Seven. This year, he did so against a tough Pacer team in the first round. He did it twice in the finals, once against the Warriors in 2016 (in Golden State no less), and in 2014 against the Spurs when he was still on the Miami Heat.
I do not share this same big game optimism for the Boston Celtics. The history of the NBA has shown us that superstars win big games. For one thing, the Celtics (uninjured) superstar is their coach. Unfortunately for Stevens, he can’t be on the floor defending LeBron or making shots for his team.
Basketball isn’t all about numbers and stats; it is at its core a human sport. This aspect of the sport allows players to sometimes outperform the occasion, and sometimes it also causes players to shrink when presented the moment. Learning to win in the NBA is an arduous process. LeBron’s career is a testament to this fact. He is now in a position where he knows how to lead a team, and if needed, put the team on his back all the way to a win.
The Celtics are on their journey right now. They have a team full of potential and moxie. They’re tough, feisty, and have tremendous rapport for a young team. They just do not know how to get it done when it matters most.
I do not see the Cavaliers winning this series unless they can get to a game seven in Boston. Without Kyrie Irving, the Celtics are missing a closer who can drown out the noise and finish a game when the team absolutely needs it. The stakes of a deciding game against LeBron James is a task too tall for the closer-less Celtics. If the Cavaliers can find ways to win their home games against them, then the Cavaliers will likely represent the east in the NBA finals for the fourth straight year.
Do not count out the Cavaliers yet. The old basketball cliché, “a series doesn’t start until the road team wins,” should be, in this matchup, “the series ends when the road team wins”. If Boston wins one game on the road, then the journey is likely over for Cleveland. If the Cavaliers win one game on the road, likely game seven, the series is also over.
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