BY KYLE HIGHTOWER
BOSTON (AP) — The Celtics are heading to the Eastern Conference finals with the No. 1 seed and home court advantage. But they are still very much underdogs to the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
That’s because throughout this season the conversation hasn’t so much been about which team would come out of the East, as much as how much resistance any team could offer the Cavs.
So far it hasn’t been much, with Cleveland posting back-to-back sweeps in the first two rounds.
After waiting more than a week for an opponent, the Cavs have their latest challenger. It’s a Boston team that many wrote off after the Celtics fell into a 0-2, first-round hole against the Bulls.
Now, fresh off a Game 7 semifinal win over the Washington Wizards , the Celtics in many ways find themselves playing with house money as they prepare to host a LeBron James-led Cleveland team carrying all the expectations into Wednesday’s Game 1 in Boston.
“We’ve been counted out since I’ve been here, so it’s nothing new,” Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas said. “We’re not really focused on the outside noise and what they think we’re going to…We’re just going to take care of business as we go.”
That’s easier said than done.
Boston has yet to beat the Cavs this season with Cleveland at full strength. The Celtics’ lone victory came on March 1, with Kevin Love out after minor left knee surgery. Cleveland won the other games by a combined 35 points, including a 114-91 romp on April 5.
Still, James respects not only the Celtics, but also their hallowed history.
“There’s only two winningest franchises in the history of the game, the Lakers and the Celtics,” James said. “Just respect that and look out up in the stands and see the banners, see the jerseys retired and things of that nature. You respect what the history has created at that point.”
Thomas has spoken several times this postseason about wanting to experience the make or break moments that only the playoffs can provide. He has his chance against a team that both he and coach Brad Stevens have acknowledged is better than it was even in April.
“That’s where LeBron is so good,” Stevens said. “I think that you can’t throw him one look, because he will eventually pick that look apart.”
Here are some things to watch as the Eastern Conference finals begin Wednesday.
There were major fireworks the last time the Cavaliers and Celtics met in the playoffs.
In Game 4 of their 2015 first-round series, which was swept by Cleveland, Boston’s Kelly Olynyk and Love got tangled up and Love was sidelined with a shoulder injury; Cavs forward J.R. Smith delivered a backhand punch to the face of Boston’s Jae Crowder and former Cavs enforcer Kendrick Perkins delivered a crushing blindside screen on Crowder.
Smith earned a two-game suspension, Perkins was fined and Love missed the rest of his first postseason after undergoing surgery.
“I look back at that game a lot,” Love said.
Olynyk was branded Public Enemy No. 1 in Cleveland, but James wouldn’t bite when asked if he thought Boston’s physical forward was a dirty player.
“I’m not about story lines,” he said. “I’m just going to play basketball.”
Nobody is better on the road than James, who has won at least one “away” playoff game in 28 consecutive series. Cleveland hasn’t lost on the road in these playoffs and has reeled off six straight road wins since dropping Game 2 of the Finals last year at Golden State.
The Cavs are 15-3 in road playoff games over the past three seasons.
Coach Tyronn Lue said there can be an advantage to opening a series on the road.
“You get a chance to feel a team out and how they play,” he said. “You know what their adjustments are for you and you get a chance to learn that on their floor, where the pressure is on them because they have to play well at home.”
PROTECTING THE GARDEN
The Garden has been a welcomed sanctuary for Boston this postseason, having gone 30-11 at home during the regular season. The Celtics are 5-2 in the playoffs, winning five straight. They are also averaging 113.8 points per game in their building, compared to 99.2 ppg on the road.
After playing sparingly in the first round, rookie Jaylen Brown came alive in the semifinals against the Wizards. Not only did his minutes and scoring increase, but so did the team’s production when he was on the floor.
Last June’s No. 3 overall pick has worked his way back into the rotation and came through with nine points off the bench in Game 7. The team was also plus-17 with him on the floor, his sixth game in that series with a positive plus/minus.
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Independence, Ohio contributed to this report.
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