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It’s no secret that the Cavaliers are far and away the most talented team in the Eastern Conference. Even the Toronto Raptors, who managed to win two games in the 2016 conference finals, were blown out in four of the six games.
Throughout the course of an 82-game season, of course any team can win on any given night, but anyone picking against the Cavs in a seven-game series, especially in the Eastern Conference, knows that they’re in a small fraction of the population.
However, if there are any teams in the East that have a fighter’s chance to dethrone the Cavs, the Boston Celtics have as good a case as anyone.
The two teams will meet Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena, but this match will in no way represent what could turn out to be a great playoff meeting in six months.
Even if the Celtics were fully healthy, this game can’t be a measuring stick of any sort because the team is still adjusting to the addition of Al Horford.
The Cavs happen to catch the Celtics at far less than full strength, as Boston will be without Horford (concussion), Jae Crowder (ankle), and Kelly Olynyk (shoulder).
When those three are all available and the team is fully acclimated to life with Horford, Boston is certainly near the top of the list of teams that can reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
Isaiah Thomas is one of the elite point guards in the league — whether fans and analysts want to label him top five or top 10 is up for debate — but what matters is the guy is really good.
He’s averaging 24.3 points (11th in NBA) and 7.5 assists (9th), after putting up 22.2 points and 6.2 assists per game in his 2015-16 All-Star season. The 27-year-old is on track for an even better season than last year, although it’s still early.
Avery Bradley is quietly averaging 19.3 points per game and has been one of the best “under-the-radar” guards in the league for the past three seasons. The 25-year-old is a lockdown defender and although his scoring is unlikely to stay near 20 points per game, he has averaged just under 15 points per game for the last three seasons.
Marcus Smart, also a great defender, is an athletic, young guard off the bench, who can play starters’ minutes and is a big part of what makes Boston’s backcourt so dynamic.
Crowder is one of the better two-way small forwards in the league, can get to the rim, hit open jumpers, and is especially valuable for his defense. There aren’t many guys in the league who can do as good a job of making life difficult for LeBron James – even if James still scores 30 and flirts with a triple-double.
After four games, the Celtics are 3-1. They handed the Chicago Bulls their first loss of the season on Wednesday night, even without Horford on the court.
Don’t dismiss the Celtics after Thursday night, even if the Cavs finish on the right end of a blowout — which is certainly within the realm of possibility.
Missing three starters, on top of the fact that it’s November, is not the time to gauge the level of threat the Celtics can pose to Cleveland.
It’s also worth noting that by February, the Celtics could overhaul some pieces of their roster and add a star-caliber player.
Although the Clippers have been rolling, Boston has previously been linked to Blake Griffin and that potential trade scenario could heat up down the road.
Perhaps Boston starts to feel comfortable with rookie Jaylen Brown (No. 3 overall pick), who the Cavs should see a lot of in Thursday night’s game, which would make the team more open to trading Crowder in pursuit of a star.
The Celtics’ loaded frontcourt with Horford, Olynyk, Amir Johnson, and Tyler Zeller along with the depth in the backcourt, gives general manager Danny Ainge plenty of options in trade talks.
To top it all off, the Celtics are stocked with draft picks — the most appealing of which is the Brooklyn Nets’ first-rounder in 2017 (expected to be in the top 5). As if that’s not bad enough for Brooklyn, the Celtics also own their 2018 pick.
All of this is to say that if the Celtics want to bolster their roster by February, they have the resources to do it and still keep a deep, well-rounded roster around whatever acquisitions they make.
Even if they keep their draft picks and build around Crowder, Smart, Bradley, Thomas, and Horford, the amount of young talent they will be able to add to an already impressive lineup makes the Celtics a team to watch for years to come.
How soon will the Celtics be a threat to the Cavs? It’s unclear. But it’s not a matter of if, it’s just a matter of time.