INDEPENDENCE — Sans Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, a lot of people didn’t think the second-seeded Boston Celtics would beat the No. 7 Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Even fewer people thought they would beat the No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Yet a seven- and five-game series later, here are the Celtics, ready to host the three-time defending conference champion and fourth-seeded Cavaliers in Game 1 on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at TD Garden.
“(General manager) Danny Ainge has done a great job of getting guys who play Celtics basketball,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said Thursday following practice. “(Terry) Rozier has come into his own. He’s playing as well as he’s ever played. (Jayson) Tatum, he’s playing exceptionally well for a rookie. Jaylen Brown has really improved, improved his shooting and playmaking ability.
“(Marcus) Smart is smart. He makes big plays. No matter how he’s playing throughout the course of the game, if there’s a loose ball at the end of the game, if there’s a 50-50 ball at the end of the game, if there’s a charge to be taken at the end of the game or a play to be made, he’s going to make it. That’s what you need. You need guys with winning attitudes.
“Al Horford is just that rock. Being a veteran, being an All-Star, being to the Eastern Conference finals, he knows what it takes. He’s that rock they need when they need to slow things down and put things in perspective.”
Lue, who previously worked under Doc Rivers in Boston, also had warm words for current Celtics coach Brad Stevens, whose team has overcome the loss of All-Stars Irving and Hayward, with Hayward breaking his leg against the Cavs in the first game of the regular season.
“They’re well coached,” Lue said. “Despite all the circumstances, they just keep plugging guys in. He’s done a great job with that team. It doesn’t surprise you.”
The Cavs also have overcome their share of obstacles, starting with the offseason trade of Irving to Boston for a package that included Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Ante Zizic. Only Zizic remains, as Thomas was dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline, the same time Crowder was shipped to Utah.
“It’s tough to see him over there (with Boston) when he did play against us, because he was a big part of what we did,” Lue said of Irving. “Winning a championship (in 2016) will never be lost.”
In addition to the Irving deal — and subsequent trades of Thomas, Crowder and Channing Frye for George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr. — the Cavs also have had to overcome a number of injuries, starting with Thomas and extending to All-Star Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson.
“We were able to continue plugging away,” Lue said. “It’s been a good situation for us. We’ve found out who we are.”
Though the Celtics got crushed in the conference finals by the Cavs last year, especially in Boston, they have a revamped roster and could push Cleveland this season.
Tatum, a distant cousin who as a child came to Lue’s family barbecues in Mexico, Mo., is a remarkably polished rookie who is averaging 18.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists through 12 playoff games.
Rozier is putting up 18.2 points, 5.5 boards and 5.5 assists, while Horford is at 17.0, 8.7 and 3.3, with Brown coming in at 16.9 points and 4.8 rebounds despite missing a game due to a hamstring injury.
“They have a lot of guys that can do a number of things, guys that have really stepped up,” Love said. “It’s not just one player. It seems like whether it’s been a rookie (Tatum), whether it’s been Rozier, Al Horford’s been playing out of his mind, it’s been a lot of guys. And that’s just three of the many. Jaylen Brown has been playing at a high level.”
The Cavs counter with the best player on the planet in LeBron James, who is averaging 34.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 9.0 assists in the 2018 playoffs. Love is at 14.7 points and 10.1 boards despite a first-round struggle against Indiana, while Kyle Korver (10.5) and J.R. Smith (10.0) also are scoring in double figures, with Hill right behind at 9.8.
“We’ve always said we thrive under the chaos,” Love said. “That’s just always been the case. There’s always been something new and fresh, so I guess it’s always entertaining. I don’t know if camaraderie is the right word, but togetherness and being familiar with one another becomes even more important at the end of the day.”
The Cavs are hoping that togetherness helps them against the Celtics and their famed parquet floor.
“When you look at the Celtics and the Lakers and all the championships they’ve won, that’s kind of who you want to model yourself after,” Lue said. “Just being able to win so much and the culture they have there. We have a great culture here, but winning so much — how many championships do they have there, 17? — is extraordinary.”
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