Chris Forsberg

Scouting the Cavs: Celtics face a tougher test in second round

Here's how Donovan Mitchell and Co. could challenge Boston.

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Celtics vs. Cavaliers, once a playoff staple, returns with a fresh look when the two teams open an Eastern Conference semifinals series on Tuesday night at TD Garden.

Boston and Cleveland haven’t met in the postseason since 2018 when a rookie Jayson Tatum and second-year Jaylen Brown nearly willed an injury-depleted Celtics team, playing without offseason additions Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, to the NBA Finals.

The Celtics look fairly similar since that game. Three of five starters remain — at least with Al Horford starting in place of the injured Kristaps Porzingis to begin this upcoming series. The Cavaliers? They’ve undergone a complete overhaul, with Tristan Thompson the only player who was part of that 2018 series.

Since LeBron James stiff-armed the young Celtics in 2018, Boston’s young core has piled up playoff experience. Since that Game 7, Tatum has played in 80 additional postseason games. Brown has appeared in 75. Horford, after a quick departure to Philadelphia, has played in 61 since that point.

The Celtics will bring a battle-tested roster into a series against a young Cavaliers team that outlasted Orlando in seven games in Round 1. Cleveland, after a first-round exit a year ago, will lean heavily on superstar guard Donovan Mitchell and his 52 games of playoff experience between the Jazz and Cavaliers. 

Cavs fans chanted, “We want Boston,” in the final moments of Sunday’s Game 7 win over Orlando that featured Cleveland rallying from a double-digit first-quarter deficit. Heat fans did the same before Boston dispatched that team in five games.

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Boston won two of the three regular-season matchups against Cleveland during the regular season. The lone loss came when the Celtics coughed up a big lead as the Cavaliers (playing without both Mitchell and Evan Mobley) rallied from a huge hole to end an 11-game Boston winning streak in March.

The Cavaliers owned the 16th-ranked offense in the NBA during the regular season, with Boston posting a record mark that was 7.5 points per 100 possessions better than the Cavaliers. The Cavaliers ranked seventh in defensive rating while allowing 112.1 points per 100 possessions (Boston was second at 110.6).

The Celtics, with title aspirations, must lean on its playoff experience against the Cavaliers. But there are still a few areas where Boston will be challenged: 

1. Caught in a spider web

Mitchell shredded just about every defender the Celtics threw at him over two games during the regular season (though Tatum held up well). A look at Boston’s top defenders vs. Mitchell this season:

That’s 44 points on 18-of-31 shooting against Boston’s top defensive options. We love the idea of Brown, who put together an excellent defensive resume this season, embracing that challenge in a potential Round 2 matchup. But Mitchell has proven on the playoff stage that he can tip a game with his scoring. 

The Celtics had far more success corralling Darius Garland. A look at those most common matchup numbers over three games:

2. The Strus revenge game?

Having dispatched the ghost of Caleb Martin, the Celtics would now face another familiar face in Max Strus. The Celtics waived Strus as a final camp cut in 2019 — keeping Javonte Green instead — and Strus has been on a revenge tour ever since. 

Despite being a career 31.9 percent 3-point shooter in the playoffs, Strus shot 41.8 percent in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals as a member of the Heat while making 23 of 55 attempts beyond the arc against Boston. That included making a trio of 3-pointers as Miami won Game 1 in Boston. Strus was +40 in his court time over those first three games as Miami built a 3-0 lead.

Mitchell and Garland demand so much attention that Strus is an X-factor of sorts that the Celtics must keep tabs on. Especially given the motivation boost he seems to get seeing green.

3. Mobley's impact around the basket

Mobley’s game-saving block in Game 4 was a reminder of how impactful he can be around the basket. Franz Wagner seemed to have a step on Mobley attacking the basket late but the big man still lunged for a left-handed swat of a layup attempt that preserved a two-point lead.

For the postseason, Magic players are shooting 4 percent below expected output when defended by Mobley, per NBA tracking. Mobley is defending 17.8 shots per game and opponents are shooting an eye-popping 9.7 percent lower than expected on shots inside six feet (53.8 percent). 

If Jarrett Allen gets healthy from a rib injury, the Cavaliers have some big-man options that will cause the Celtics some headaches, especially without Porzingis available as a weapon.

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