After the buzzer sounded, Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas congratulated Washington Wizards Head Coach Scott Brooks and his players for a hard-fought series and jogged back into the locker room. As monumental of a win this was for Thomas and his Celtics, he understood his team’s most daunting challenge stood waiting in the Eastern Conference Finals.
LeBron James has led the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers to a perfect 8-0 record in the NBA playoffs. The play of the Cavaliers in the first round of the NBA playoffs struck doubt in many pundits’ prediction as to whether this team would reach the Finals for its third straight season. However, James dispelled any such notion when he dismantled a balanced Toronto Raptors team in four games.
In the 2017 postseason, James has elevated his game to new heights, averaging 34.4 points per game, 9.0 rebounds per game, 7.1 assists per game, 1.5 blocks per game and 2.1 steals per game.
As a three-time NBA champion and three-time Finals MVP, James has fulfilled his promise to the city of Cleveland by breaking a 52-year title drought last season. Driven by more than a desire to win, James has his eyes set on chasing and eventually surpassing the legacy of Michael Jordan. To accomplish this feat, James must eliminate this hungry Boston Celtics squad and then, presumably, a loaded Golden State Warriors team led by Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.
This is why there was minimal celebration by Thomas and his teammates following their 115-105 Game 7 win over the Wizards. Thomas understood that to accomplish his goal of winning an NBA championship he must take down the greatest NBA player of this generation.
Thomas has shown unmitigated toughness throughout this postseason. Before Boston’s series with the Chicago Bulls, Thomas’s sister, Chyna, died in a one-car accident. Support flowed from the NBA community to Thomas, who chose to play in Game 1 of that series.
Playing with a heavy heart, Thomas has averaged 25.4 points per game, 6.5 assists per game and 0.9 steals per game, including a 53-point performance in Game 2 against the Wizards on what would have been Chyna’s 23rd birthday.
Despite the fact that Thomas has proven himself a legitimate NBA star during this run, he remains unsatisfied. He recognizes that the odds are stacked against him and his young Celtics. Nevertheless, Thomas utilizes the doubt of outsiders as fuel for his fire.
Even though Boston is the youngest No. 1 seeded playoff team in the last 40 years with an average age of 26 years, it has gained invaluable experience this postseason. The Celtics lost the first two games of their first-round series against the No. 8-seeded Bulls. This led Thomas to reach out to Kobe Bryant and ask for assistance in reviewing game tape. Boston responded by winning four straight games to move to the second round. The Celtics rallied from an early 16-0 deficit against the Wizards in Game 1. They regrouped mentally after John Wall’s game-winning shot in Game 6 to put forth a great effort in Game 7 and move onto the Conference Finals.
The Boston Celtics are certainly up to the task of preventing James from reaching his seventh-straight NBA Finals. However, Boston did not fare well against Cleveland in the regular season, losing three of its four games, including a 23-point loss in the final week of the regular season.
The length and size of the Cavaliers ought to prove problematic for a small Celtics team. Thomas stands at a mere 5-foot-9 and Avery Bradley at 6-foot-2, compared to Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith, who stand at 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-6, respectively. Thomas and Bradley will have difficulty contesting shots by Cleveland’s lanky guards. Brad Stevens most likely will use a combination of Bradley’s tenacity and Marcus Smart’s physicality to guard Kyrie Irving.
Jae Crowder draws the unenviable job of trying to slow down James. Crowder, who stands at 6-foot-6 and 235 lbs., is strong enough to handle James, who is slightly bigger at 6-foot-8 and 250 lbs. However, James’ burst of speed when attacking the rim can cause issues for Crowder as he lacks the speed and athleticism to keep James out of the paint.
Regardless, no matter how tall the task, Thomas and the Celtics will refuse to back down.
Daniel Baldwin is a sophomore in the McDonough School of Business.