BOSTON — The jerseys and venues will be the same, but so much has changed since the last time Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics met in the Eastern Conference finals.
Kyrie Irving was dealt to Boston in a blockbuster offseason deal for Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder. But following a roster upheaval in February , the Cavs were left with only five players from last year’s team that rolled past the Celtics 4-1 to earn a place in the NBA Finals.
Irving will watch this year’s rematch from the sideline after a pair of knee surgeries late in the regular season denied him an opportunity to play this postseason. It was the capstone of an injury-plagued year in Boston that also saw the seasons of Gordon Hayward and rookie Daniel Theis truncated.
The one constant has been Cleveland’s LeBron James, who at age 33 has again found another gear in the playoffs despite the different pieces surrounding him. His 34.3 scoring average in these playoffs is his highest since the 2009 postseason.
James can become the sixth player in league history to play in at least eight consecutive NBA Finals. The five others who have done so all played with the Celtics, led by Hall of Famer Bill Russell’s run of 10 straight appearances.
James hasn’t yet had a chance to reflect on his own run but says he isn’t taking anything for granted at this point in his career.
“You dream about being able to play in big games in the NBA and even when I got to the NBA that was one of my only goals to be as great as I can be, to play in big games in the NBA and be remembered and I think I’ve done that in my career,” he said. “Just trying to add onto it while I can.”
The series starts Sunday in Boston. This is the eighth playoff matchup between the teams overall, with the Celtics leading 4-3.
The Celtics are seeking their first trip to the NBA Finals since 2010, when they got past James and the Cavs in the East semifinals.
Since Irving’s injury, Celtics coach Brad Stevens has relied heavily on veteran Al Horford and a youthful corps that includes 24-year-olds Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, 21-year-old Jaylen Brown and 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum.
Horford is averaging career playoff-high 17 points per game, while carrying the leadership torch.
Rozier has flourished in a starting role since Irving was sidelined in mid-March. It’s carried over into the postseason where he is averaging 18.2 points per game. And Tatum is coming of a series against Philadelphia that saw him average 23.6 points per game — the second-highest by a Celtics rookie in franchise history.
“I feel like we more together (than last year),” Rozier said. “Obviously guys been going down all year and it’s like you never know who’s going to down. But we found a way, we pulled together.”
As for Rozier’s prediction for the series?
“Stay tuned,” he said.
Some other things of note in the Eastern Conference finals:
Like James, Rozier first bounced a ball in Northeast Ohio.
Rozier is from Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb on Cleveland’s east side. He’s been on James’ hoops radar since he was a high school freshman. And while Rozier has been a breakout star in these playoffs to NBA fans, James knew he would eventually shine.
“He was a confident kid then when I watched him at Shaker. And he’s a confident player now, so I’m not surprised,” James said. “He’s gotten better and better. It was a steal when they drafted him out of Louisville, and he’s just showcasing his abilities. … So, everybody is going crazy over what he’s doing but I’m not. He’s a local guy.”
(TD) GARDEN PARTY
Boston has become a preferred spring destination for James.
After a 2-9 start to his playoff career in New England, James has won his six straight postseason games on the road against the Celtics, a streak that began with his epic 45-point, 15-rebound performance in Game 6 for Miami in the 2012 conference finals. In those six wins, James averaged 34.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists.
James has averaged 30.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists while going 8-9 on Boston parquet’s hardwood.
Since losing two straight series with Cleveland to Boston in 2008 and 2010, James has eliminated the Celtics four times, going 8-1 in the past two matchups.
Indiana pushed Cleveland to seven games in the opening round. The Pacers were physical, resilient and confident.
The Cavs feel the young Celtics might be a greater challenge.
“Boston is better than Indiana,” Cavs forward Kyle Korver said. “With as much respect as we have for Indiana, obviously, they took us to seven, I think defensively Boston is elite. They’re really good. They’re always in the right spot. They have a great game plan.
“For sure the Indiana series has prepared us for the playoffs in a lot of ways. Now that we’re through that series, we’re glad.”
No. 2 BOSTON CELTICS (55-27, 8-4) vs. No. 4 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (50-32, 8-3)
Season series: Cavaliers, 2-1.
Storyline: Cleveland’s LeBron James is one round away from his eighth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, and it’s an East finals rematch between two franchises that look incredibly different than they did 12 months ago. Kyrie Irving went from Cleveland to Boston last summer; his season is over because of a knee injury. Isaiah Thomas went from Boston to Cleveland in that deal; his season is over because he’s long moved on from the Cavs. It’s two teams that were written off plenty of times this season, yet here they are again.
How They Got Here: Boston beat No. 7 Milwaukee 4-3 and No. 3 Philadelphia 4-1. Cleveland beat No. 5 Indiana 4-3 and No. 1 Toronto 4-0.
Key Matchup: Boston’s Al Horford vs. Cleveland’s Kevin Love. James is going to be great; that’s a given. The Cavs will need their second-best player to be great as well, or else that opens the door for Celtics coach Brad Stevens to preying on weaknesses.
AP basketball writer Tim Reynolds’ prediction: Cavaliers in 6.