Over the past two seasons, the Cleveland Cavaliers have blitzed through the Eastern Conference playoffs, sweeping four of the six series they've played and finishing two others in six games.
It has led to a common belief that the Cavs, barring significant injuries, will do so again this spring. That's a relevant question today as they head into a game in Boston against the Celtics (8 ET, ESPN), currently owners of the No. 2 seed.
So we asked a collection of scouts and league executives: Could you see the Celtics upsetting the Cavs if they were to meet in the conference finals?
"When you watch the Cavs play now you see how much confidence they play with. It's a huge difference from two years ago," a Western Conference scout said. "It's going to be really hard to crack that. When they get in close games, they play like they expect to win. That would be a big hurdle for the Celtics to have to clear. They'd have to shake them, and I'm not sure they can."
The Cavs do have confidence against Boston. Dating to the 2014 playoffs, the Cavs are 8-1 in the series. The lone Celtics victory came in miraculous fashion last season in Cleveland, where they managed to execute a five-point possession after falling down by four with just eight seconds to play. Avery Bradley finished it with a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Other than stealing that one, it has been all Cavs.
"They don't care about any of that," said an Eastern Conference scout about the Celtics. "These guys play fearless, and they fight every game, no matter the circumstances. I'm a believer in them. Would I be shocked if they pulled an upset on Cleveland in the playoffs? No."
The Celtics have played the Cavs tough. In November, the Cavs were up 17 going into the fourth quarter before a now standard Isaiah Thomas-led fourth-quarter surge made it tight at the end. In December, it was a one-point game in the final 30 seconds before the Cavs pulled away. Both games were in Cleveland.
At the moment, the Cavs have a four-game lead on Boston for the top seed and home court in a potential series. A victory Wednesday would effectively make it a six-game lead, because it would clinch the season series and the tiebreaker. The Celtics have lost three of four games, giving the Cavs a little cushion back after the deficit narrowed ahead of the All-Star break.
"Boston rarely beats themselves," one scout said. "If you're going to figure a way for them to beat Cleveland, that is a place to start. They have the occasional sloppy performance, but typically, they make you beat them. And they're very well coached, they get baskets out of timeouts late in games and they squeeze points out with coaching moves. If you're looking for a team that has the package to pull an upset, they're it. But they'd need help from Cleveland probably."
Said another scout: "They might be able to beat Cleveland this week because they don't have their full team. But if the Cavs are fully healthy, especially if J.R. [Smith] is back, then I don't see it. They have no place to hide Isaiah on defense. Now you can hide him on [Iman] Shumpert or if they play [DeAndre] Liggins or [Kay] Felder. When they have J.R. and [Kyle] Korver, they can really take advantage of him."
Thomas has had some big games against the Cavs, averaging 24.4 points over the past two seasons. He has two 30-point games this season and has repeatedly exploited them by using his shiftiness to draw fouls. He's 27-of-27 at the line against the Cavs this season and 49-of-52 over the past two seasons.
But the Celtics haven't been able to stop the Cavs defensively when Thomas is on the court. Over the past five meetings, the Cavs score 118.2 points per 100 possessions with Thomas in the game and just 104.5 with him off the floor. It is not a surprise that the Cavs have topped 120 points in each of the past three meetings.
The Cavs aren't great on defense, either. They currently rank 20th in points per possession, several spots below the Celtics. But they have more offensive firepower and just set a franchise record for highest scoring average in a month when they put up 117 points a game in February.
"People wonder how teams can't stop [Thomas] because of his size. Well, let me tell you, there isn't a defense in the world that can stop him when he's on the run, because he's too quick," one scout said. "But in the playoffs, when the games slow down and the passing lanes tighten up, he can have problems. Then it comes down to whether the rest of the team can beat you."
Another scout had questions about the Celtics' offensive punch aside from Thomas.
"I saw where LeBron said recently his team was too 'top heavy,'" the scout said. "Well, when you look at the Celtics, they're too middle-heavy. After Isaiah, there isn't much that scares you. They have some guys who can have big games, yes, but do they have anyone that can make you pay if you load up on Thomas?"
That was the reason the Celtics signed Al Horford last summer. After injuries earlier in the season, Horford has been a sound addition. He ranks ninth among centers in real plus-minus, though he has the lowest PER and the lowest shooting percentage of his career. It's also the reason the Celtics have been in the trade market for stars such as Jimmy Butler and Paul George.
"The Celtics are an example of incremental improvement, and that's something we don't value as much as we should," a veteran scout said. "We expect every team to go from bad to great. It's not exactly the same OK, but they remind me of the Pistons in early 2000s. They had flaws, yeah, but they kept getting better and better. Then, bam, they get Rasheed [Wallace], and they're a killer. I can see the same thing unfolding here."
If they're able to get another star player to act as a counter-balance for Thomas, the matchup with the Cavs changes greatly. With high draft picks, tradable assets and salary-cap space, that player might be coming -- eventually.
But he didn't arrive in time to affect this year's playoffs. The professionals believe that player could be the difference for Boston in the postseason.
"They have some strong and smart individual defenders like [Marcus] Smart, [Avery] Bradley and [Jae] Crowder," a scout said. "And all those guys are tough. They can beat you up. They all help Thomas on defense, but they can't always help him on offense. Until he gets more help, I think it's the Cavs' conference."