Celtics ought to prove they aren’t pretenders in Eastern Conference

BOSTON —  No one needs to tell the Boston Celtics they’re not favored to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals.

Even though the Celtics are the top seed in the conference. Even though the Celtics have home-court advantage. Even though in the final week of the season Boston closed with three victories to win the conference, and Cleveland lost four consecutive games.

”They didn’t give us a chance in this series (against the Washington Wizards),” Celtics All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas said. ”They didn’t give us a chance when we were down 2-0 in Chicago (in the first round). We got the number one seed, and they didn’t give us a chance. They don’t ever give us a chance, and we just keep going.”

The predictions have been turned in, and this series is destined for no more than five games, according to the experts. It might even go the minimum four games. A Cleveland sweep wouldn’t surprise anyone.

Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) celebrates his basket with Jae Crowder, left, during the fourth quarter of Game 7 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Washington Wizards, Monday, May 15, 2017, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) ORG XMIT: BX123

Game 1 is Wednesday in Boston (7:30 p.m., TNT).

”We’re playing against a worthy opponent, great coaching staff and great players, and look forward to the challenge,” Cavs superstar LeBron James said, unwilling to provide the Celtics with additional motivation.

But has a No. 1 seed ever been such an underdog in the conference finals? The Atlanta Hawks were big underdogs against the Cavs in the 2015 playoffs, but the Celtics are even bigger underdogs.

The top-seeded Indiana Pacers were underdogs against the Miami Heat in 2014, and the No.1-seeded Chicago Bulls were underdogs against the Heat in 2012.

The common thread in all those teams listed as the underdog? They had to play a James-led team, and James has never been worried about not having the top seed. He knows winning on the road in the playoffs is necessary.

The world order in the East is evident. To get to the NBA Finals, a team must beat James four times, and James hasn’t allowed that to happen in the past six seasons. Heck, in 20 series starting with 2011 postseason, James has played in just two Game 7s in the East.

James is trying to get to his seventh consecutive NBA Finals and join a small group of Celtics players from the 1950s and 1960s, including Bill Russell, to achieve such a remarkable accomplishment.

Boston wants to put an end to James’ streak.

It won’t be easy.

The Cavaliers won the season series 3-1, and on April 5, they beat the Celtics 114-91 in Boston. Celtics coach Brad Stevens said the Cavs ”smashed us,” in that game. He also said the Cavs are better now than they were then, especially on defense, which was Cleveland’s biggest concern headed into the playoffs.

”You’re watching it on film, and you go, ‘They’re going to go to a different level,’ and they have,” Stevens said. ”It’s a bunch of guys who have been there before. They have a ton of corporate knowledge built. They fly around and can cover for each other with their savvy and understanding better than most teams, especially young teams.”

The Cavs have been impressive in the playoffs, eliminating any doubts about their ability to play championship-level defense. James, having one of the best postseasons of his career, and the offense are cooking, especially from the three-point line where the Cavs lead all playoffs teams in three-pointers made per game (14.4) and three-point percentage (43.4%).

”They’re playing confident,” Thomas said. ”Everybody on that team is playing at a high level. It’s going to be tough, but we’re here and we’re ready.”

That’s why Game 1 is almost a must-win game for the Celtics. Boston is in a rhythm of playing games, and the Cavs haven’t played since May 7. The Cavs could be vulnerable. It’s the perfect set-up for the Celtics to take the series opener and add suspense.

Putting pressure on the Cavs, who haven’t trailed in an East series since losing Game 3 to the Bulls in the 2015 conference finals, and giving themselves confidence is the best-case scenario for the Celtics at the start of the series.

Said Celtics guard Avery Bradley, ”It’s our chance to show the world we’re supposed to be here.”


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