Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers second-round series preview

The Celtics will continue their quest for championship banner number 18 with a second-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

It's been several years since the last time these two teams matched up in the postseason, dating back to the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals in which the Celtics lost in seven games. These two rosters are much different now, however.

Boston will most likely be without center Kristaps Porzingis for the majority of this best-of-7 series , if not all of it with a right soleus strain -- an injury sustained in Game 3 of the C's first round match-up against the Miami Heat. Al Horford will now need to step back into a starting center role, something the veteran big man is plenty familiar with in years past playoff runs.

Cleveland's starting center Jarrett Allen is also questionable for the beginning of this series with a rib injury that kept him sidelined the last three games for the Cavaliers against the Orlando Magic. Allen could play a key role in this series if he were able to suit up, especially on the offensive end, giving the Cavs another scorer as a significant pick and roll threat while also providing excellent rim protection down low with fellow big man Evan Mobley -- who struggles with physicality at times. 

The strength of Al Horford could bother Mobley despite his height advantage. If Mobley is passive, Cleveland will be in trouble.

Cavaliers' star Donovan Mitchell will carry most of the offensive load for Cleveland, as he averaged nearly 29 points in the first round against the Magic -- while not get much help from his teammates. Mitchell's back-court mate, Darius Garland, has struggled so far this postseason putting up 14.9 points on 12.7 field goal attempts so far in seven games played. The Celtics will likely look to put Garland in numerous actions in hopes to get an advantage on those possessions.

One piece of this match-up that should be interesting is Cleveland's defensive approach on Jayson Tatum. In round-one, Miami really keyed in on Tatum and did not allow him to take advantage of many one-on-one scenarios on offense. While Tatum did not force anything, it opened up his gravity on the floor for everyone else to eat -- as he averaged a team-high 5.4 assists per contest along with netting 21.8 points (third-best) and grabbing 10.2 rebounds -- also a team-best. Derrick White (22.4 points on 57.7% from the field and 47.7% from behind the arc) was a significant beneficiary of said gravity, and it will be interesting to see if the Cavs take the same approach to start the series. Tatum will need to continue to play with poise and patience if defenses keep loading up on him.

Look for the Celtics' leading scorer from the first-round in Jaylen Brown (22.8 points) to go toe-the-toe on both ends of the floor with Mitchell -- who the All-Star wing apparently sees as his "frenemy" at least for however the length of this best-of-7 series will go.
"Ain't no friends in the playoffs," Brown said in his Monday post-practice presser, on preparing to face the familiar foe in Mitchell and the Cavaliers.
The feeling is also mutual on Mitchell's part when asked about facing "friends" in Brown and Tatum for the first time of his career in the NBA during postseason play.
"Two of my friends, but to be honest, I stopped talking to them when we saw how the [bracket] was going to figure out," he told reporters Tuesday of potentially going up against Brown and Tatum. "It's all competition. I expect nothing but the best from them and vice versa."
When it comes to each team's second unit, the Celtics should have the advantage in this series with the likes of Sam Hauser (8.0 points on 48% from 3-point territory) and Payton Pritchard. Cleveland does have some contributors off the bench in Caris LeVert and Isaac Okoro, but neither can be relied upon game in and game out for steady offense. When Okoro is on the floor, he may become a help point for the Celtics due to his lack of consistent three point shooting. With Jarrett Allen missing the past several games, the Cavs have had to count on Tristan Thompson as their backup big. Thompson is not what he once was, and Boston will look to exploit him any time he takes the floor. 

The Celtics will also be well rested for the start of round two, as their series-clinching Game 5 blowout win over the Heat came last Wednesday.
"It may not be an advantage, you never know," head coach Joe Mazzulla told the media of Boston's extended break. "It could be more of an advantage to be in height and awareness mode coming off of a game seven and playing game one. What matters is making sure we're ready to play. Regardless of them going into a Game 7, they're going to be just as ready to play."
Game 1 is scheduled for Tuesday night at TD Garden, with a 7:00 pm ET tip-off and TNT has the broadcast.

Eli Weisberger

Photo used courtesy of The Associated Press

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