It is true that LeBron James has appeared in more playoff games during his career than the Celtics’ entire roster has combined. But that narrative has created a bit of an illusion that Cleveland is a battle-tested postseason squad and that Boston will shudder under an unfamiliar spotlight.
First of all, if James is dominant in this series, it will not be because he has been in so many other series; it will be because he is the best player in the world. Also, beyond James, the playoff experience gap between these two teams is not massive.
Anderson Varejao is the only Cavalier besides James who played for the team the last time it reached the postseason, when it fell to the Celtics in the 2010 conference semifinals. And he is out for the year with a torn Achilles’ tendon.
In fact, when James is removed from the equation, the Cavaliers’ starters have played in a total of 58 playoff games; the Celtics’ starters have appeared in 100. And yes, this is the first NBA playoff series for Celtics coach Brad Stevens, but it’s also a first for Cavaliers coach David Blatt.
So there is little reason to believe the Celtics’ lack of playoff exposure will truly matter when the teams begin their opening-round series Sunday.
“If you don’t have experience, you’ve got to go out there and play, still,” Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas said. “The hoop is still 10-foot. The ball is still round.”
What will matter, in the end, is talent. For the Celtics, the greatest concern will be finding ways to slow James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, among others.
Irving and Love never have appeared in a playoff game, and it is unlikely that the Celtics consider that a relief. They know what those two are capable of, even if it has yet to transpire this late in a year.
It is actually fair to ask if playoff experience makes much of a difference at all. Is the postseason, at its core, really that much different than the regular season?
“I think [playoff experience] is something to talk about,” Stevens said. “I think the intensity level is probably very real. I think the 48 minutes, it’s gonna be more urgent because your season’s on the line. And again, I think that’s why you have to focus on keeping it simple and being yourself. It’s very similar to everything I’ve been through from the standpoint of the [NCAA] tournament. You just feel the tension in the air that feels a little bit different.”
Good teams with playoff portfolios tend to perform well when they return to the postseason, but that could just as easily be a result of being a good team, not because the players are inherently familiar with the grand stage.
The Celtics gave several reasons why extensive playoff experience is not essential, and they actually seemed to conflict. In one breath, they said it was just a game, just basketball, just like the rest. In the next, they pointed out that so many of them have big-game experiences tucked away, from high school state championships to NCAA Tournaments.
But if they are to argue that the games in this series are, in fact, just like the rest, then that should probably mean that their previous big games were just like the rest, too. Those experiences should not matter now.
Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the Celtics hardly will be overwhelmed by the moment against the Cavaliers. And Stevens, for one, will try to stick with the approach that has helped his team reach this point.
“If we’re going to say that [the playoffs] are such a unique and different thing, and we don’t have the experience, that’s probably not a good thing, right?” Stevens said. “So let’s say that there’s a power in being naïve, and let’s go play well.”