Boston or Orlando, that is the question.
Cavaliers small forward LeBron James went out of his way to compliment both teams Monday night after Cleveland swept the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, but one of the last things he said in his postgame news conference offered a pretty good hint who heâ€™d like to play.
â€œIâ€™m a competitor,â€ James said when asked about the defending champion Celtics. â€œI thrive on going against the best. I love playing against the best. Make your answer out of that.â€
The answer, clearly, is that James would like another shot at the Celtics, who defeated the Cavaliers in seven games in the conference semifinals a year ago.
Boston and Orlando were tied 2-2 going into Game 5 Tuesday night. Game 6 will be Thursday, with Game 7, if necessary, on Sunday.
The Cavaliers, who went nine days between games after sweeping Detroit in the first round, donâ€™t have a definitive date for the start of the conference finals, but team officials believe the earliest the series will start is Monday at Quicken Loans Arena. If the Celtics and Magic go seven games, Game 1 might not be until a week from today, meaning the Cavaliers would again go nine days between games.
That layoff was not a problem for the Cavaliers against Atlanta, as they won the four games by an average of 18 points.
â€œThe one thing about our team is weâ€™re very disciplined,â€ James said. â€œWe have a veteran ballclub, and weâ€™re going to take advantage of the rest time we have because we can use it. It doesnâ€™t matter if you play four games or five, six or seven. Itâ€™s wear and tear in the postseason, so weâ€™re going to take advantage of it. Weâ€™re looking forward to our next challenge.â€
Whether that next challenge will be Orlando or Boston remains to be seen, but both teams are operating at less than 100 percent.
The second-seeded Celtics are playing without All-Star power forward Kevin Garnett and backup Leon Powe, who are both out with knee injuries. Without them, Boston needed seven games to get past Chicago in the first round. Four of those games went into overtime, with one going two OTs and another going three.
That obviously forced Boston to work extra hard, but thereâ€™s no way James and the Cavaliers will take the depleted Celtics lightly.
â€œWith Boston, we know everything they have,â€ James said. â€œWeâ€™ve got a history with Boston. The biggest reason theyâ€™re successful right now is the emergence of (point guard Rajon) Rondo and Glen â€˜Big Babyâ€™ Davis has stepped up.â€
Those players have had to step up with Garnett and Powe out. Powe is definitely done for the postseason after undergoing surgery and Garnett is supposedly finished as well, but the Cavaliers are fully aware K.G. might suddenly suit up in the conference finals.
Even if he doesnâ€™t, Boston still has proven All-Stars in small forward Paul Pierce and shooting guard Ray Allen, plus power forward Davis, center Kendrick Perkins and the lightning-quick Rondo.
â€œThatâ€™s an experienced ballclub,â€ James said. â€œYou take one All-Star (away) and theyâ€™ve still got two more.â€
Third-seeded Orlando is also at less than full strength, as All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson is done for the season due to a shoulder injury. The Magic, however, quickly acquired Rafer Alston from Houston to start in place of Nelson.
Orlando also has rookie shooting guard Courtney Lee back from a fractured sinus, not to mention lethal 3-point shooters in forwards Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis.
Orlando loves to spread the floor and get the ball inside to NBA Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, who either operates one-on-one in the low post or kicks the ball out to teammates for open 3-pointers.
â€œTheyâ€™re tough because they have the most dominant big man we have in our game today,â€ James said. â€œBut then they surround him with so many shooters, itâ€™s tough to double him at times.
â€œAll those guys know their roles and do a great job off what teams do with Dwight. Itâ€™s almost â€˜pick your poisonâ€™ with them.â€
During the regular season, the top-seeded Cavaliers went 2-2 against Boston and 1-2 versus Orlando, with the home team winning all seven games. Dating back to the start of the 2007-08 season, the home team has won the last 15 meetings in the Cavaliers-Celtics series.
Cleveland played arguably its worst game of the season in falling 116-87 to the Magic on April 3, but bounced back to win five in a row before dropping its final regular-season game to Philadelphia with James, Mo Williams and Zydrunas Ilgauskas sitting out.
With eight straight wins in the playoffs, all by at least 10 points, the Cavaliers have won 13 of their last 14 games overall.
â€œWeâ€™re playing great basketball,â€ James said, â€œbut weâ€™re not satisfied.â€
Thatâ€™s why the Cavaliers did not celebrate after sweeping the Hawks, and itâ€™s why they vow to be ready whether they play Orlando or Boston.
â€œWe canâ€™t wait,â€ James said.
Until the Magic and Celtics conclude their series, however, the Cavaliers will do just that.