For the 2017-18 season, the N.B.A. made some obvious choices to kick off the season on opening night: The rebuilt Houston Rockets would face the defending champion Golden State Warriors, and the former Cavaliers star Kyrie Irving would lead the Boston Celtics against his former teammates in Cleveland.
If you failed to watch how the regular season played out, the league’s final four makes perfect sense. But during a season in which Golden State and Cleveland were at times very beatable and in which Boston lost its two biggest stars to injury, only Houston’s presence in the conference finals was seldom in doubt.
And now we will see if the N.B.A. can produce its first finals since 2014 featuring teams other than the Warriors and the Cavaliers.
No 2. Boston Celtics vs. No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers
Season head-to-head: Cavaliers, 2-1
Game 1: Sunday, 3:30 p.m., ABC
LeBron James was supposed to be too tired to get past the top-seeded Toronto Raptors in the semifinals. He was worn out from a tough seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers in the first round, his teammates were providing almost no help and he was going up against a team loaded top to bottom with talent. But as he has done so many times, James found a different gear, and he and his teammates absolutely humiliated the Raptors in a four-game sweep that was so comical it was probably the chief reason Toronto decided to fire Coach Dwane Casey last week (which was especially awkward since Casey had just been named coach of the year by his peers).
So what does that mean for this matchup?
Once again, James is up against a team that was better throughout the regular season and that has far more options, far more youth and a far more cohesive strategy on defense. This was supposed to be the supporting cast for Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, but even with both of those players out, the Celtics have thrived. Al Horford is their do-everything center, providing quiet leadership and superb play on both ends of the court. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are their tantalizing young wings playing a far more mature style than it seems they should be capable of at their age. And Terry Rozier is their undersized and unheralded guard, who can seemingly score at will. (Isaiah Thomas must think it weird that he was so quickly replaced.)
The bad news for Boston is that James got nearly a week of rest, and just before that, his teammates seemed to figure out ways they could help him. Coach Tyronn Lue incorporated Kevin Love more into the offense, and that has focused his effort on defense as well. Love and Kyle Korver have been shooting well enough to open the floor, and when James has a clear path to the basket, he becomes absolutely unstoppable — though against Toronto he oddly fell in love with midrange jumpers, a strategy that has fallen out of favor in the N.B.A.
It is not an exaggeration to say the Cavaliers on any given possession will have the best player on the floor but still be facing a rather extreme talent discrepancy. There is little reason to believe that Cleveland can make that numbers game work, but James has been to seven consecutive N.B.A. finals. The only right time to think he won’t find a way out of the East will be after his team is eliminated. Until then, we can assume he will take care of business.
Pick: Cavaliers in 7.