The Boston Celtics are the second-seeded team in the Eastern Conference and possess home-court advantage for the best-of-seven conference finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Yet they are also viewed as the underdogs no matter which standard you use.
The fourth-seeded Cavaliers invade TD Garden for Sunday’s series opener and they are looking to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season. They also have a player named LeBron James on the roster.
Add up the evidence and even the Celtics are just fine with being labeled the underdog in this matchup.
“You’ve got everybody counting us out, but we knew from the beginning we’ve got each other,” Celtics guard Terry Rozier told reporters. “We weren’t gonna lay down for nobody, no matter who was counting us out. We weren’t going to just let the teams come in and punk us.
“We were the No. 2 seed for a reason. With injuries, without, we were the No. 2 seed, so obviously we were doing something great all season and what (a reporter) said is true, you can keep counting us out. We’d rather (the media) count us out. We don’t want anybody on our side now. We’re doing good and we play better when our back is against the wall.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens also isn’t the least bit bothered by Cleveland being viewed as favorites.
“We talked about it prior to the playoffs, nobody should love a challenge more, nobody should have more fun doing it,” Stevens said. “I think our guys have done a good job doing that.”
Meanwhile, James isn’t buying into the chatter about how his squad will overwhelm the Celtics.
He is well aware Boston is without his former Cleveland running mate in Kyrie Irving (knee) and only had marquee free-agent signee Gordon Hayward (ankle) for one quarter this season. But James sees a plethora of talent dotting the roster of a highly competitive team.
“I think they are one of the most well-coached teams in our league,” James told reporters during his Friday media availability. “Obviously, you know what I’ve said about Brad Stevens before and his ability to get the most out of his guys, how great they are out of timeouts, late-clock situations as well, no matter who is on the floor or no matter who has played for them, he can put guys in position to succeed and get the most out of whoever has been in their lineup over the past few years, it’s not just this year.
“I think it has been a little bit overblown this year because of the names that has been out. Obviously, with Kyrie and Gordon and the injuries with those two big guys, but he has gotten the most out of everybody he has ever put in his position since he’s gotten to Boston.”
James is four victories away from reaching the NBA Finals for the eighth straight season. Getting there again would tie him with Boston’s Frank Ramsey for the fourth-longest such streak in NBA history, and would leave him behind three other Celtics’ standouts: Tom Heinsohn and Sam Jones with nine straight and Bill Russell with 10.
“I haven’t reflected on it,” James said. “But I do know that this is my eighth straight conference finals, and I have an opportunity to play for a championship if I’m able to be successful in this conference finals, so I don’t take that for granted. You dream about being able to play in big games in the NBA, and even when I got to the NBA that was one of my only goals: to be as great as I can be, to play in big games in the NBA and be remembered, and I think I’ve done that in my career. Just trying to add onto it while I can.”
James has been superb in the postseason with averages of 34.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 9.0 rebounds, and the Celtics know stopping him completely is highly unlikely.
“Our goal is not to stop LeBron, it’s to win the game,” Boston guard Jaylen Brown said. “That’s our mindset.”