Tomase: LeBron looms and this time Celtics will be ready for their nemesis

John Tomase
May 08, 2018 - 11:10 am
Kevin Love hugs LeBron James

Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports

There's only one question that matters this morning, and it's not how the Celtics account for T.J. McConnell or if the officials will again crib from the Tim Donaghy handbook.

It's how to stop the runaway locomotive emblazoned with a gold and wine No. 23 barreling towards Boston.

Nothing against the Sixers, but they're not built to win three in a row against the Celtics or twice in Boston. The C's can put down the not-ready-for-primetime visitors on Wednesday night in Game 5.

And once they do, they'll find themselves in the same position as last year but not remotely the same position as last year -- facing nemesis LeBron James and the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals at a time when James has never been better and his supporting cast, at least as far as Cleveland 2.0 goes, has never been worse.

The Eastern Conference boasts two compelling narratives, and they're on a collision course. How are the Celtics winning without a star? And how far can LeBron carry the Cavs?

A year ago, the Celtics were your classic just-happy-to-be-here story and they still managed to steal a game in Cleveland despite Kyrie Irving being in uniform for the hosts and Isaiah Thomas being shut down for the visitors. That Game 3 win established the template for today's Celtics, who have taken next-man-up to illogical extremes.

BOILERPLATE PARAGRAPH THAT I WILL INCLUDE IN ALL CELTICS STORIES MOVING FORWARD JUST TO GET IT OUT OF THE WAY: The C's are playing without Irving and max-contract free agent Gordon Hayward, as well as athletic big man Daniel Theis, and they're winning anyway.

A year ago, they stunned the Cavs on Avery Bradley's buzzer-beating jumper high off the back rim. Marcus Smart drilled a bunch of 3's, Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko (remember them?) compiled a combined plus-37 off the bench, and the C's stormed back from a 21-point deficit midway through the third quarter.

They actually kept the momentum rolling in Game 4, opening a 16-point first half lead before Cleveland realized no one wearing green could stop Irving, who poured in 42 points.

Those Celtics couldn't sustain success because Cleveland's talent overwhelmed them. These Celtics are built very differently, and so are the Cavs. Not since 2012, when Rajon Rondo led the Celtics to Game 7 against the Heat have the C's been so well-positioned to knock off The King.

That's a relative term, of course. Boston would prefer playing with its stars. But Cleveland is effectively a one-man team and Celtics head coach Brad Stevens is a brilliant tactician who has already dispatched one of those in the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks. He's currently embarrassing the more talented Sixers.

Beating the Greek Freak early in his career is one thing. Taking down LeBron at his best is another entirely. James is averaging 34.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, and nine assists a game this postseason, which started with a hard-fought seven-game win over the Pacers that required one miracle James buzzer-beater and then a rally from a 34-point drubbing in Game 6 to squeeze out Game 7.

He was even more destructive in a sweep of the top-seeded Raptors, breaking their spirit with the fallaway that forced overtime in Game 1, and basically incinerating the franchise with a banked runner at the buzzer to win Game 3. The Cavs finished the sweep with a 35-point blowout in Game 4 on Monday.

What LeBron's doing now feels like the varsity basketball star who shows up at the playground to run 5-on-5 with a bunch of eight-graders. James has reached the stage in his career when physically overwhelming opponents means steamrolling them instead of hurdling them. A case can be made that he's the best point guard, small forward, and power forward in the league, often on the same possession.

But even undermanned, the Celtics should present a much sterner test. Jayson Tatum has emerged as a legitimately elite scoring threat in the postseason both off the dribble and in the mid-range. Jaylen Brown is battling a hamstring injury, but let's not forget we're only a couple of weeks removed from his first two 30-point playoff games. Terry Rozier never stops moving. Smart does dirt-doggy Smart things. Marcus Morris hasn't had a great postseason, but he's considered one of the best LeBron defenders in the league. Al Horford is the stabilizer.

The Celtics don't have Irving, but neither do the Cavs. It's hard to imagine Cleveland mopping the floor with Boston again, even with James dominating, because the Celtics are the best defensive team in the league, they're confident, and what's left of their young core plays with a lot more pride than we expected.

They're a team on the rise and Cleveland is one clinging to James like a bunch of baby koalas. So let's get this on. LeBron is unstoppable. The Celtics keeping finding a way.

No. 23 may look like a runaway train, but the Celtics are prepared to climb onto the tracks and stand their ground.