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Series Preview: Celtics will make the Cavs work

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The Cavaliers have the X’s and O’s advantage, but this won’t be an easy series.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Well, we’re finally here. The Eastern Conference Finals tip off on Wednesday, and the Boston Celtics have advanced past the Washington Wizards in a brutal seven- ame series.

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers have been relaxing. The team hasn’t played a game since they closed out the Raptors on May 7, and LeBron James has somehow only played eight games since April 10.

This Cavaliers team is rested and ready, and have had time to prepare for whoever might have come out of this series.

Can Boston challenge the Cavaliers? Well, this may come as a shock, but it’s going to be an uphill battle.

Their first task will be to figure out how to survive in the rebounding battle.

Among playoff teams, they are dead last in defensive rebounding, grabbing only 70.2 percent of their opponent’s misses. For a frame of reference, Tristan Thompson alone grabs 18.2 percent of available offensive rebounds. With Al Horford at center and a propensity to downshift into small-ball, this isn’t a team that’s built to keep Thompson or Kevin Love off the boards.

To make matters worse, Jae Crowder doesn’t really have the off-the-dribble juice to kill the Cavaliers for staying big when the Celts go to small ball. He’ll have to bang down a very high percentage of his threes to justify being out there. If not, the Cavaliers will be happy to put Love on Horford like they’ve done the last two years against the Hawks and have Thompson chase Crowder on the perimeter.

To make matters worse, the Celtics are likely going to have a hard time stopping the Cavaliers. During the regular season, the Celts had the 12th-best defensive rating, allowing 105.5 points per 100 possessions. Against the Cavaliers, however, they had an 116.1 defensive rating.

Why is this? Well, the first answer, obviously, is that the Cavaliers are an incredible offensive basketball team. But it’s not that simple. The Celts’ first red flag defensively lies with their star guard, Isaiah Thomas.

Thomas tries hard, but at 5’9”, he doesn’t have the size to navigate screens, challenge ball handlers, or switch onto anybody. The Wizards sometimes bailed Thomas out by allowing him to hide on a player like Kelly Oubre in the corner. The Cavaliers provide no such safe harbor for exploitable mismatches.

I’d expect the Cavaliers to give Thomas the Stephen Curry treatment. In last year’s Finals, Cleveland scrapped most of their cute actions for a brute force approach: whoever Stephen Curry is guarding will set a screen for Kyrie Irving or LeBron, and he’s going to have to defend.

This kind of treatment will be even harder on Thomas, who is six inches shorter than Curry. The Celtics will have to send help, and that will leave the Cavaliers army of willing shooters open to bomb away.

This strategy works two-fold as well. Not only does it expose the Celtics worst defender, but it’s exhausting to fight through screens and then try to guard LeBron every possession and then carry an unreal offensive burden for your team.

It’s not all bad news for the Celtics on that end of the floor though. In Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart, the team has two of the most rugged perimeter defenders in the league. Bradley, in particular, is the perfect defender to stick on Irving.

He’s unbelievably smart, quick, and one of his most admirable qualities on end of the floor is his balance. He can close out at a dead sprint to a corner shooter, stop on a dime and cut off the drive. He also is physical at the point of attack, something Irving is not a fan of dealing with.

Horford and Crowder make up a talented and versatile defensive frontcourt, but their inability to snag rebounds will make it hard for the Celts to finish off possessions even when they are able to get stops.

And then, there’s the LeBron problem. Crowder will likely get the bulk of the minutes on LeBron, but his reputation as a perimeter defender is probably somewhat overstated. This is no Andre Iguodala on the defensive end. James will get his, and Celtics will need to send help.

When Crowder sits, the problem is compounded, because this is a team that doesn’t have a ton of big wings. Perhaps Jaylen Brown can get there some day, but to ask the rookie to try to slow LeBron seems like a fools’ errand. The Celts will likely try to steal some minutes with Smart guarding James, and despite being built like a tank and being unbelievably feisty, it’s not fair to expect a 6’3” guard to keep LeBron out of the post.

Where the Celtics will have to kill the Cavaliers is in the turnover battle. They have the second-best opponent turnover percentage in the Playoffs so far, forcing their opponents to turn the ball over on 15.1 percent of their possessions. LeBron can be baited into high turnover games, but if the team can take care of the ball, the Celtics are probably dead in the water.

On the offensive end, the Celtics will win or lose based on two factors.

First, they’ll need Thomas to absolutely go off, which he did against the Wizards. Thomas put up 27.4 points per game on 45 percent shooting from the field and 46 percent shooting from three while still dishing out 7.1 assists. The Wizards gave him every kind of look they had in their arsenal, including trapping him at the point of attack or switching their bigs onto him and he roasted every single one.

I’d expect the Cavaliers to continue their strategy of hard doubles teams and traps at the point of attack like they did to DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Paul George at times so far in these playoffs. Lue will force anybody other than Isaiah Thomas to beat him.

The second factor is directly tied to the first factor: the Celtics need to hit threes at a high rate, especially when Thomas is trapped and the Celts find themselves playing four-on-three.

This has traditionally been a team that chucks a ton of threes but doesn’t make a lot of them. In the postseason, that’s translated to disastrous results, as three-point shooters used to lackadaisical close-outs in the regular season suddenly had a lot less room to work.

The Celts were 28th in three-point percentage last season, shooting 33.5 percent. That number plummeted even further in the postseason, dropping all the way to a devastating 27.5 percent on 31.5 attempts per game.

This season, that’s changed. Boston surged up the charts to become a respectable three-point shooting team this season, landing at a respectable 14th in the league at 35.9 percent. Unlike last year’s playoff run, the team has actually shot better from distance, hitting 37.3 on their three-point attempts.

Part of this renaissance has been Horford, who, well, is going nuts from deep so far.

The Cavaliers will play the percentages here, and just like it did at times against Lance Stephenson, it could burn them. Tyronn Lue’s defensive schemes typically involve the Cavaliers completely ignoring players that they don’t perceive to be threats from deep. Expect a wide berth for players like Smart, Brown, and they’ll ask Horford to keep hitting from deep as well.

One of the reasons the Celtics killed the Wizards was the reality that Washington’s bench couldn’t hold water. As CBS Sports’ Matt Moore noted, the Celtics couldn’t keep up against the Wizards starters.

This is where the Celtics superior depth played to their advantage against Washington. Unfortunately for Boston, Cleveland’s second unit features LeBron Freaking James. Boston’s second units will have a profoundly hard time outgunning the LeBron-plus-shooters lineups that have become a staple in Lue’s rotation, so their starters will have to find a way to win the minutes that they have against the Cavaliers starters.

It’s also worth noting that the Wizards were clearly tired down the stretch of many of these games. It’s easy to point at Wall’s seven attempts from three in Game 7 as evidence that Wall had gone away from what he does well offensively, but it’s likely a byproduct of his fatigue as much as anything.

Unfortunately from the Celtics, the Cavaliers employ an android that does not appear to get gassed even when playing 44-46 minutes per game. An android whose only stressor has been a Versa-Climber in the last 10 days. James won’t give the Celtics the respites where the Wizards wore down and ultimately succumbed. The depth advantage doesn’t carry the same weight for Boston, and it’s a problem.

Look: The Celtics have certainly earned more respect than the majority of Cavs Twitter (and myself) has afforded them over the course of this season. They’re dogged defenders on the perimeter, stocked with smart passers and when they’re hitting their shots, they can put some real points on the board.

Thomas doesn’t feel like the kind of player who is supposed to drag his team to a Conference Finals, but here we stand. He’s been amazing amidst personal tragedy,

The X’s and O’s advantages the Cavaliers have can be mitigated by smart scheming from Brad Stevens and good-old-fashioned effort. The Cavaliers have the potential to make this a short series, but they’ll have work really hard to do so. This Boston team is not interested in laying down and dying. They’ll fight tooth and nail, and as we saw two years ago, aren’t afraid to muck it up to even the playing field.

The Cavaliers will have to work in this series, but I expect them to take this Celtics team seriously. They know how important rest is heading into a potential three-match against the Golden State Warriors, and with Kawhi Leonard banged up, it could be a short series out West.

Cavaliers in five.