Celtics-Cavs should have drama
LeBron's elbow is just one of the storylines to follow as teams prep for Round 2
As Celtics players met with the media following Tuesday's Game 5 triumph over the Miami Heat, which pushed fourth-seeded Boston through to the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls were still neck-and-neck in their own Game 5.
The Celtics didn't officially know their next-round opponent, but they knew their next-round opponent.
Coach Doc Rivers did a nice job of tiptoeing around the subject in the early going of his question-and-answer session, not wanting to be part of a "Dewey Defeats Truman"-type moment if Chicago had pulled off an upset for the ages by rallying from a 3-1 series deficit.
It didn't happen. No one needs to walk on eggshells any more. It's Celtics vs. Cavaliers, the sequel.
While the teams have played eight times over the last two seasons, they are renewing acquaintances in the postseason with an epic seven-game series in the 2008 conference semifinals fresh in everyone's minds.
"I think it's a great matchup, it's great for basketball," said Celtics captain Paul Pierce.
The Green enjoyed an off day Wednesday. They surely have begun mentally preparing for Saturday's Game 1 in Cleveland and will hit the practice court Thursday to start physically preparing.
With that in mind, here's a quick look at three major storylines in advance of the series:
1. Stopping LeBron James (and his potentially injured elbow)
Following the Celtics' 2008 championship season, the team held a DVD release party at the Legends Club inside the TD Garden. As Pierce's teammates mingled in the VIP area, he sat alone at the bar, a glass of red wine in front of him, fixated on the Celtics-Cavaliers highlights playing on a screen in front of him.
Pierce could only shake his head as he watched himself and James battle -- often in dramatic slow motion -- back-and-forth throughout the series.
"Man, LeBron's a beast," Pierce sighed at the time.
Pierce should expect more of the same this time around and he's well aware of the challenge that awaits.
"We know this is going to be a tough series -- a really, really tough series," said Pierce. "You've got LeBron James -- the best player in the NBA right now. He is about to receive another MVP, a two-time MVP. It's a huge mountain we're going to have to climb, but I think this team is ready to face the test. We are playing as well as we have been playing all season long, and we are ready."
But is James ready? In the waning moments of Cleveland's Game 5 win over the Bulls, James flexed his right elbow in apparent discomfort. He shot a woeful-looking left-handed free throw with seven seconds remaining and the Cavaliers clinging to a four-point lead.
X-rays and an MRI taken Monday showed no obvious structural damage, but James underwent treatment Wednesday and is expected to have further testing before Saturday. A Cavaliers spokesman said the team will provide a medical update after James is evaluated further.
"I'm not concerned," James told reporters after the game. "I'm healthy, I'm ready, and we are looking forward to the second round."
He later added: "Cleveland fans have nothing to be worried about. They don't have any reason to panic."
James' elbow issue sounds a lot like Pierce's problem with his right shoulder (in recent weeks, he's called it everything from a stinger to a potentially pinched nerve). While their maladies are prone to flare up at any moment, neither player figures to be forced to the sideline, especially not on this stage.
When healthy, James has consistently produced big games against the Celtics. In four regular-season games this season, he averaged 36.5 points, 8.3 assists and 6.5 rebounds.
Will the Celtics employ the same game plan that they employed against Dwyane Wade and challenge James' supporting cast to beat them? That might not be as easy against the Cavaliers.
2. Cleveland's revamped supporting cast
Only James remains in that starting five. Now he's playing alongside Antawn Jamison, Shaquille O'Neal, Mo Williams and Anthony Parker. And then there's Anderson Varejao, J.J. Hickson and Jamario Moon on the bench, next to Ilgauskas and West.
Cleveland has made the sort of upgrades typically reserved for real estate flippers. The Cavs hope for a comparable payout.
Cleveland has changed even since the start of the season. When Boston beat the Cavs on opening night, Cleveland was playing its first game with O'Neal. It didn't add Jamison until near the trade deadline. A late-season thumb injury to O'Neal, along with a waive-and-return from Ilgauskas, has led to some personnel issues as the Cavs sort out their front line. But the Celtics know they are in for a challenge regardless of who's on the floor.
"With Shaq, they're different," said Glen Davis, who might be public enemy No. 1 in Cleveland after TV replays caught him tugging on the thumb that would ultimately sideline O'Neal at the end of the regular season.
"They didn't have a low-post presence [before this season]. They have a post game now that can get easy buckets. With Jamison, it's a whole different ballgame."
3. Road reversal: Big Three open away from home
When the Celtics topped the Cavaliers in 2008, the Green enjoyed home-court advantage in the series. They won't have that luxury this time around.
For the first time since the Big Three united in Boston, the Celtics will open a series on the road. The Celtics boasted home-court advantage in all seven of their previous matchups.
"Such a classic series a couple of years ago when we played them in the playoffs, but this time we are going to their house with them being the No.1 seed," said Pierce. "They are the team to beat right now; they showed it throughout the course of the season. The way they are playing right now, we have our work cut out for us.
"If we are going to win the series, we have to get some games in Cleveland, possibly more than one, and definitely have to defend our home court."
Davis said it's up to Boston to be the aggressors.
"It's tougher because we've got to go there," he said. "We've got to grind it out, go there first. But we have to make sure we go with the mentality of attack first. That's how it is. You've got to go to the fight -- bring it to them and attack their fortress. Bust their wall in with a wood tree and attack at night. That's how it is."
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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