2017 NBA Playoffs | Celtics-Cavaliers preview

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)
(AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

Lost in the euphoric chaos of Kelly Olynyk’s personal outburst, as the Boston Celtics advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals on Monday night, was the Washington Wizards’ ability to finally exploit Isaiah Thomas on a consistent basis.

Brad Stevens yanked his star point guard as the third quarter clock read 6:01 in Game 7, notably sooner than in the previous six contests. The reason: Washington hit seven of its first eight field goal attempts of the quarter, in large part by finding the 5-foot-9 Thomas and attacking him – with pick-and-rolls, off-ball curls, post-ups and isolations.

The Wizards tried like hell to take advantage of Thomas’ height deficiency throughout the second round of the playoffs. They force-fed Bradley Beal on the block several occasions every game, and tried a similar approach with Otto Porter. Wall would routinely walk into back-downs from 94 feet, daring the Celtics to send help before finding his way to the paint. However, Thomas fared well on aggregate, especially against Beal – at least until Game 7. Bully ball plays right into Thomas’ hands as a defender; he’s tough, strong and low to the ground. It’s not as though Beal, improved as he was in 2016-17, is an interior technician at this stage of his career, either.

The Cleveland Cavaliers won’t have to stray from their identity to get Thomas involved in the action on defense. He may open games checking Kyrie Irving, and Ty Lue will attack that mismatch as eagerly as Scott Brooks. One key difference: Irving shot 48.6 percent from the post this season, a near-elite mark, and has enough wiggle off the bounce and at the rim to get whatever he wants when guarded by Thomas.

That drive and finish above began with Deron Williams setting a screen on Avery Bradley, switching Thomas onto Irving. Boston will live with that specific consequence if absolutely necessary. Helping and recovering is a death-knell against Cleveland’s army of marksmen, and the Celtics –especially when playing small – have the all-court defensive versatility to make Irving work for scores.

Leaving Thomas on an island with LeBron James, though, is a much different story. The Cavaliers ran a hobbled Steph Curry ragged last June by having his man set screens for James, and they’ll go back to that gambit again and again throughout the Eastern Conference Finals until Stevens is forced to take Thomas off the floor. Even if James isn’t scoring or assisting, the corollaries of that action spring leaks elsewhere – in the form of three-pointers, offensive rebounds and layups.

Boston fans might go insane over the next few weeks watching Cleveland do stuff like this:

Thomas’ defensive rating against the Cavaliers in the regular season was 120.5, a porous number shared by his fellow starters. However, Boston couldn’t score without him either, which lends further credence to the notion that Stevens will re-embrace small-ball after mostly abandoning it for the past few games versus Washington.

Doing so would only enhance Cleveland’s edge on the glass, and potentially empower Kevin Love – a development that makes the defending champions almost impossible to beat.

The Celtics are underdogs for a reason. They’ll be forced to adjust more in this series, and toggling defensive assignments with Al Horford and four perimeter players is the surest means of slowing down the Cavaliers. Bradley, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier play much bigger than their size suggests. The same goes for Jae Crowder, and to a lesser extent Jaylen Brown.

Downsizing will pay dividends for Boston on the other end, too. Cleveland’s defense has hardened; the Toronto Raptors’ offensive rating was a dismal 100.9 in four depressing games of a series many thought would be competitive. The Cavaliers surely won’t have the luxury of schematic continuity from round to round, though. They doubled DeMar DeRozan in isolation situations and trapped him in pick-and-rolls, forcing the notoriously stagnant Raptors to move the ball and make quick decisions.

The Celtics eat that type of stuff alive. Thomas showed how willing he is to play facilitator when the Wizards sent an extra help defender his way, and Horford has never been more comfortable with the ball. Boston will find an open look if Cleveland sends two to the ball, further leveraging the playmaking merit of five pass-friendly shooters – or maybe not five, but Smart and Brown will let it fly – against a defense that has a penchant for inattentiveness on the weak side of the floor.

Thomas isn’t the only defense-challenged point guard in this series. The Cavaliers may be just as inclined to hide Irving on that end, but they don’t have the perimeter disruptors of the Celtics.

J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert will be tasked with chasing Thomas for a lion’s share of minutes, while Irving, James and Deron Williams are bound to draw the assignment, too.

Still, switching on and off the ball might be Cleveland’s best chance at containing Thomas. Love and Channing Frye are the only players in Lue’s rotation whom Boston could frequently expose in that scenario. The Cavaliers used a hard hedge on Thomas pick-and-rolls in the regular season, and will do so again on occasion in this series. Especially when James is at nominal power forward, though, expect the position-less brand of defense that helped Cleveland stymie the Golden State Warriors a year ago.

The Cavaliers always go small at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters. The lineup of Williams, Shumpert, Kyle Korver, James and Frye has been gangbusters offensively, but it is also slow-footed, the type of lineup which inevitably falls victim to the Celtics’ motion-heavy attack.

Perhaps planning ahead, Lue unveiled a bench-heavy unit that replaced Frye with Thompson in the second round. It dominated. Though three games and 18 minutes represent an almost inconsequential sample size, the two-way fabric of that lineup supports its staggering 63.4 net rating – and has the goods to mitigate success of Boston reserve units, the greatest strength of Stevens’ roster.

Washington’s starters outscored the Celtics by 18 points per 100 possessions in the conference semifinals, and played 224 more minutes than any other quintet. The Wizards came up short because their bench was laughably out-classed. Boston doesn’t hold that trump card against Cleveland. With James resting just a couple minutes per game so far in the postseason, there’s no clear window for the Celtics’ mini-runs that propelled them to victory against Washington.

The Cavaliers won the season series 3-1 despite playing two of those contests at much less than full strength. They’ve been off for nine days, the longest stretch of James’ 14-year career. He’s won a road game in 28 consecutive playoff series, a record that must be extended for Cleveland to beat Boston and reach a third consecutive NBA Finals.

If all else was equal, the presence of James alone would make the Cavaliers clear favorites over the Celtics. It’s not. Cleveland is humming offensively, improving on defense and deeper than ever. Boston is everything that’s right about the foremost team game in sports, and has the requisite roster flexibility to throw multiple looks at the Cavaliers on both sides of the ball. Home-court advantage can’t be discounted, either.

But let’s get real. It’s LeBron, and his team is rounding into peak form as the calendar continues flipping towards June.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 5

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