We can't really say we didn't see this coming, especially with how terrible the Celtics have been on the road—1-6 win-loss record—and the odds of a lower seed pulling off an upset (e.g. Portland Trail Blazers, Toronto Raptors) this postseason. Not to mention, it's hard to imagine an East team beating LeBron James four times in the NBA playoffs.
And with the going about to get tougher from here, the tough aka superstars are expected to get going and lead their respective squads to the Finals. For Boston, it's Brad Stevens and his genius to get the most out of his limited pieces (sans Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving). Cleveland, on the other hand, is basically "just give LeBron the ball and get out of the way."
Although what could really spell the difference in the remaining games are the unheralded players from each side, the ones who scrap for every loose ball and make those few wide-open shots. Call them "X factors "or any other cool name, but one thing's for sure: a big game from these guys—outside of James, Kevin Love, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum—is an almost-sure win for their teams and can define the outcome of the series.
His numbers and playing time may not be eye-popping (7 ppg 6.8 rpg 1 bpg 20.6 mpg), but Aron Baynes might just be most important player off the bench. The most-posterized player in the league—only because of his tenacity—allows the Celtics to put another body on the relatively bigger Cavaliers, as well as provide the intangibles from the center spot other than Horford. From the most imposing dude in the roster, we go to the second-smallest in Terry Rozier (next to Shane Larkin), who has been a revelation in this playoffs but hasn't been quite his "Scary Terry" self versus Cleveland (13.8 ppg 5.8 apg 5.3 rpg). Coach Stevens needs the best impression of Isaiah Thomas from his undersized point guard for them to successfully get over the hump.
But no other Celtic is more valuable than Marcus Morris, who proclaimed, "I think I'm probably the best guy defending (LeBron) in the league, outside of Kawhi," even before the conference finals began. That statement would be true if the series ended in Game 1, where James was held down to an unkingly 15 points (5-of-16 fg, 0-5 3pt). Since then, LeBron has had a couple of 40-point outings and an ultra-efficient performance in Game 3 (27 pts on 8-12 fg and 3-3 3pt). The thing is, Morris isn't even helping on the other end of the floor, averaging 10.3 markers in their last three meetings. The rugged forward has to realize that he has to do more than just talk the talk when up against the best player in the world.
The Cavs Finals fortune depends on how many of their old heads will show up for the next matches. In CLE's road losses, JR Smith went 0-7 from deep, a stark contrast from his three conversions each at home. Swish living up to his moniker will only space the floor and give LeBron more room to operate, with defenders worrying about another legitimate outside threat. Coach Tyronn Lue has to be loving what he's seeing from Tristan Thompson so far: 9.8 ppg 9.5 rpg, highlighted by 13-point, 12-rebound, 2-block outing Game 4. From almost not leaving the bench vs the Indiana Pacers, Double T seems to be way past off-court distractions and is finally playing at a hundred percent, both physically and mentally.
Lue wasn't alone in disbelief when he found out that Kyle Korver is already 37 years old—the oldest player in the series (we seriously had to fact-check that). In Game 4, the veteran sniper looked spry for his age, particularly when he was putting up his efficient 14 points (4-7 fg, 4-4 ft) in 25 minutes as a reserve and denying 21-year-old Brown twice during the same possession (3 blk). The Cleveland coach may have joked about playing his shooter "too many minutes" (Korver himself said he'd be "hurting tomorrow"), but we couldn't agree more with the former also admitting, "We need him." If the Cavaliers manage to get out of the East for their fourth-straight Finals trip, don't be surprised when Lue designates Korver as the third option, behind James and Love.