HomeSportsCeltics-Cavaliers preview: Why Boston is still an overwhelming favorite even without Porziņģis

Celtics-Cavaliers preview: Why Boston is still an overwhelming favorite even without Porziņģis

The Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Boston Celtics (64-18) will face the fourth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers (48-34) in the second round of play. 2024 NBA Playoffs. This is the first playoff meeting between the two franchises since 2018, when Cleveland defeated Boston in a seven-game Eastern Conference final.

Armed with the league’s most talented top six – Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porziņģis, Jrue Holiday, Derrick White and Al Horford – the Celtics posted a 23-6 record at Christmas, a 43-12 mark at the All -Star break and finished 64-18, possessing the NBA’s best regular season record (by seven games) and net rating (by 4.4 points per 100 possessions). Only Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls of 1995-96 and 1996-97 had a greater average margin of victory per 100 possessions than this season’s Celtics (+11.7).

Their reward was a first-round series against the Miami Heat, who defeated Boston in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last year. The Heat were without Jimmy Butler and Terry Rozier for this series and without Jaime Jaquez Jr. in Game 5. It was no contest, except for Game 2, when Miami needed a franchise playoff record 23 3-pointers to steal one. Boston won the remaining four games by a combined margin of 78 points.

Unfortunately, the Celtics lost Porziņģis to a right soleus strain in Game 4. He is expected to miss this entire second-round series. The 7-foot-3 Latvian’s ability to draw big players to the three-point line, punish smaller defenders in the paint and protect the rim from both adds a layer of verticality to the Celtics that they will miss in his absence. Horford, who started the 2022 NBA Finals in Boston, will answer that call again.

Stocked with guards and bigs, the Cavaliers reshuffled on the wing, most notably adding Max Strus as a starter alongside Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. They also shuffled Caris LeVert, Isaac Okoro, Georges Niang, Marcus Morris and Sam Merrill into the wing rotation. And still the biggest questions about Cleveland revolved around the firings of those star-caliber guards and bigs.

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After winning 51 games in 2022-23 and then losing a first-round series to the New York Knicks, the Cavaliers’ 18-15 start to this season felt like more of the same. It’s tough to build around two non-shooting bigs or two small(ish) ball-dominant guards, let alone both, but the vast collection of talent is enough to win.

Curiously, Cleveland won 17 of 18 games and played its best basketball in the midseason, mostly without Garland and Mobley. Once the two rising stars returned, the Cavs finished the regular season with a 13-18 skid – even more remarkable. It didn’t help that Mitchell, an MVP candidate for the first half of the season, missed 27 games due to a series of injuries. Overall, Cleveland’s expensive starting lineup yielded a net rating of +2.3 points per 100 possessions — good but not great.

The Cavaliers’ first round followed a familiar script. They wiped the floor with Orlando in the first two games, stifling the Magic’s offense and winning by a combined 34 points. This was everything we expected from such a talented group. Then Orlando repaid the favor in Games 3 and 4, holding Cleveland’s offense to fewer than 80 points in a pair of blowouts. It was all we were worried about with the Cavs.

A rib injury cost Allen Games 5-7, but his teammates responded. Mobley saved Game 5 with one of his 21 blocks in the series. Mitchell scored 89 points in the last two games. His 50 in Game 6 wasn’t enough, but his 39-9-5 decided Game 7. All of this leaves us wondering which lineup is Cleveland’s best in Round 2.

Boston won the regular season series against Cleveland 2-1.

The Cavaliers were without Mobley for the first two meetings — back-to-back Celtics wins at TD Garden — and Mitchell for the final showdown, a wild affair. Cleveland needed 20 fourth-quarter points from Dean Wade (now out for the season) to complete a 22-point comeback in the final frame of a 104–103 win.

Once again: Dean Wade outscored the entire Celtics in his franchise’s greatest fourth-quarter comeback ever. That was the difference between a comfortable season win for Boston and a smaller margin. This is what the Cavaliers can hope for: something that will disrupt normalcy, to upset these Celtics.

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Cleveland’s projected starting five didn’t play a single minute against Boston this season. Likewise, the Celtics quintet of White, Holiday, Brown, Tatum and Horford played all three minutes against the Cavaliers. However, the stars were the stars for both teams, and Boston’s are better and more cohesive.

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 12: Darius Garland #10 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Donovan Mitchell #45 talk during the second half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on December 12, 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photo, user agrees to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell survived Orlando. Boston will be a different story. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

Donovan Mitchell vs. Jrue Holiday

Mitchell is an elite playoff scorer. His 27.9 points per game in the postseason are fourth all-time for a career. However, in Cleveland he was very inconsistent. He has shot 45.3% from the field and 27% from 3-point range in 12 playoff games for the Cavaliers. That level of inefficiency isn’t going to beat Boston.

Mitchell will have his hands full against the Celtics. Boston defended Mitchell primarily with Holiday, a five-time All-Defensive selection, and some of Brown’s length. While Mitchell scored well against both during the regular season — 27 points on 11-for-17 shooting in 19 minutes, according to NBA tracking data — he didn’t elevate Cleveland’s offense elsewhere. He committed three turnovers for his five assists versus Holiday and Brown, and the Cavaliers scored just 101.6 points per 100 possessions in those minutes.

This is how the Knicks dismantled the Cavs in the playoffs last year. They welcomed Mitchell’s shooting — 23 per game in Cleveland’s four losses — and trusted that his penchant for “hero ball” wouldn’t raise the standard of everyone around him. Likewise, Mitchell’s assist (4.3) to turnover (3.8) ratio was far from productive against Orlando in the first round, especially for someone who uses a third of his team’s possessions.

It should concern Cleveland that Mitchell scored 60 points on over 50% shooting in his two appearances against Boston this season, and the Cavs were soundly defeated both times. He had nine assists and six turnovers. Holiday will make Mitchell work for his points at the expense of his teammates.

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On the other hand, Holiday Mitchell can’t let himself hide. Mitchell is a target on defense and has been since his days at Utah. Holiday can be passive, but he should force Mitchell into action as a playmaker and screener, which will be more effective if he connects on more than 33% of his playoff 3s. A pick-and-pop only succeeds if the roll man is a threat. Let Mitchell work both ends and Cleveland will be in trouble.

The rebound battle

Without Porziņģis, who grabbed more than 20% of available defensive rebounds against Cleveland this season, the Celtics’ size against the Cavaliers could become a factor. Horford is an excellent rebounder, as are Tatum and Boston’s guards, but none of them are a 7-3 guy who can reach over Cleveland’s trees.

Despite their size, the Cavaliers are an average rebounding team, especially on offense, where they captured 27.4% of available boards, which ranked 22nd in the league this season. In their three games, Boston defeated Cleveland by a total of 142-116 (39-23 on the offensive glass) each time. Although Mobley missed two of those games, Allen’s ribs remain a health concern for this series.

The Celtics will likely win the three-point battle. They shot 38.8% on 42.5 three-point attempts per game against Miami in the opening round. Cleveland shot 36.7% on 36.8 attempts against Orlando. That difference was about the same during the regular season. So the Cavs need to find additional assets somewhere. What good is Allen and Mobley if they can’t beat the Celtics without Porziņģis?

Celtic in 5

As good as Cleveland’s defense has been this season, Boston’s has been better, and the offensive efficiency margins lean too heavily in the Celtics’ favor. Likewise, the Celtics have a plethora of options to defend Mitchell, the catalyst of Cleveland’s offense. Conversely, Strus starts on Tatum? Who is guarding Brown? Or white? Any of them can run Boston’s offense against a porous perimeter defense.

Boston Celtics (-1400)
Cleveland Cavaliers (+800)

Game 1: Tuesday, May 7 @ Boston (7 p.m., TNT)
Game 2: Thu, May 9 @ Boston (7 p.m., ESPN)
Game 3: Sat. May 11 @ Cleveland (8:30 p.m., ABC)
Game 4: Mon. May 13 @ Cleveland (7 p.m., TNT)
*Game 5: Wednesday May 15 @ Boston (TBD)
*Game 6: Fri. May 17 @ Cleveland (TBA)
*Game 7: Sun. May 19 @ Boston (TBD)

*If necessary

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