Favourites Cavs open East finals on road vs underdogs Celtics
The Celtics are heading to the Eastern Conference finals with the No. 1 seed and home court advantage. But they are still very much underdogs to the defending champions Cleveland Cavaliers.
That's because throughout this season the conversation hasn't so much been about which team would come out of the East, as much as how much resistance any team could offer the Cavs.
So far it hasn't been much, with Cleveland posting back-to-back sweeps in the first two rounds.
After waiting more than a week for an opponent, the Cavs have their latest challenger. It's a Boston team that many wrote off after the Celtics fell into a 0-2, first-round hole against the Bulls.
Now, fresh off a Game 7 semi-final win over the Washington Wizards, the Celtics in many ways find themselves playing with house money as they prepare to host a LeBron James-led Cleveland team carrying all the expectations into Wednesday's Game 1 in Boston.
"We've been counted out since I've been here, so it's nothing new," Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas said. "We're not really focused on the outside noise and what they think we're going to ... . We're just going to take care of business as we go."
That's easier said than done.
Boston have yet to beat the Cavs this season with Cleveland at full strength. The Celtics' lone victory came on March 1, with Kevin Love out after minor left knee surgery. Cleveland won the other games by a combined 35 points, including a 114-91 romp on April 5.
Thomas has spoken several times this post-season about wanting to experience the make or break moments that only the playoffs can provide. He has his chance against a team that both he and coach Brad Stevens have acknowledged is better than it was even in April.
"That's where LeBron is so good," Stevens said. "I think that you can't throw him one look, because he will eventually pick that look apart."
There were major fireworks the last time the Cavaliers and Celtics met in the playoffs.
In Game 4 of their 2015 first-round series, which was swept by Cleveland, Boston's Kelly Olynyk and Love got tangled up, and Love was sidelined with a shoulder injury. Cavs forward J.R. Smith delivered a backhand punch to the face of Boston's Jae Crowder and former Cavs enforcer Kendrick Perkins delivered a crushing blindside screen on Crowder.
Smith earned a two-game suspension, Perkins was fined and Love missed the rest of his first post-season after undergoing surgery.
Olynyk was branded Public Enemy No. 1 in Cleveland, but James wouldn't bite when asked if he thought Boston's physical forward was a dirty player.
"I'm not about story lines," he said. "I'm just going to play basketball."
The Cavs are 15-3 in road playoff games over the past three seasons.