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Monday, May 06, 2024

Boston Versus Cleveland Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#1 Boston (64-18) vs. #4 Cleveland (48-34)

Season series: Boston, 2-1

Cleveland can win if…Donovan Mitchell has a historic scoring series, and Cleveland's big men dominate the paint. Mitchell scored 50 points in a game six loss versus Orlando in the first round, and then he had 39 points in Cleveland's 106-94 game seven win. His 89 combined points in games six and seven are the second most in NBA playoff history, trailing Allen Iverson by just one point. Iverson set his record versus Milwaukee in the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals as his Philadelphia 76ers lost on the road in game six and then won at home in game seven. Iverson dropped 48 points in his next game, leading the 76ers to a game one NBA Finals victory that proved to be the only loss suffered by the Shaq-Kobe Lakers en route to capturing their second consecutive NBA title. Iverson averaged a playoff career-high 32.9 ppg in 2001, and the Cavaliers will need a similarly extraordinary performance from Mitchell to have a chance to beat the dominant Celtics.

Mitchell scored 28.7 ppg on .459 field goal shooting versus Orlando while averaging 5.1 rpg and 4.4 apg. Those numbers are consistent with Mitchell's playoff career averages. He ranks eighth in ABA/NBA playoff history with a 27.7 career scoring average, trailing only Michael Jordan, Luka Doncic, Allen Iverson, Kevin Durant, Jerry West, LeBron James, and Devin Booker while sitting just ahead of Rick Barry, Elgin Baylor, and Stephen Curry. 

Evan Mobley has a limited offensive game but he is a good rebounder and excellent shotblocker who averaged a career-high 9.4 rpg plus 1.4 bpg during the regular season, and 9.0 rpg plus 3.0 bpg in the first round versus Orlando. Jarrett Allen averaged 17.0 ppg, 13.8 rpg, and 1.0 bpg in the first four games of the Orlando series before suffering a rib injury that sidelined him for the last three games. His healthy return to action is critical for the Cavaliers to have any chance in this series.

The Cavaliers also need Darius Garland to play better than he did versus Orlando. He had 10 points in the fourth quarter of game seven to seal the win, but he averaged just 14.9 ppg on .449 field goal shooting during the series after averaging 18.0 ppg on .446 field goal shooting during the regular season. Garland made the All-Star team in 2022--the season before Mitchell joined the Cavaliers--and the Cavaliers need for Garland to play at an All-Star level to counteract Boston's lineup featuring multiple current and former All-Stars.

Boston will win because...Jayson Tatum is an MVP-caliber player who will be the best player in the series, and because Boston's overall talent is superior to Cleveland's. Tatum averaged 26.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg, and 4.9 apg during the regular season, and he averaged 21.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg, and 5.4 apg as the Celtics made short work of the short-handed Miami Heat in the first round. Tatum's scoring and field goal shooting (.416) were subpar during those five games but the Celtics did not miss a beat because Jaylen Brown averaged 22.8 ppg and Derrick White averaged 22.4 ppg. White and Jrue Holiday may be the best defensive backcourt in the league, while Tatum and Brown are excellent defenders as forwards who can also check guards.

Kristaps Porzingis injured his calf during Boston's game four win versus Miami, and he will likely miss this entire series. That is a significant blow because of Porzingis' impact at both ends of the court, but the Celtics have enough talent and depth to beat the Cavaliers even without Porzingis. Al Horford is a wily veteran and five-time All-Star with a lot of playoff experience. Luke Kornet will get more minutes off of the bench with Horford moving into the starting lineup.

Other things to consider: The Celtics clearly have the superior team even without Porzingis. They led the league in three point field goals made, defensive rebounds, blocked shots, and fewest turnovers, and they ranked second in both points scored and defensive field goal percentage. This is a complete team with no discernible weaknesses.

There are only two possible concerns for the Celtics (other than injuries, which can derail any team): 

1) The Celtics heavily rely on three point shooting, and that kind of high variance offense is vulnerable to costly shooting slumps, particularly if there is a stubborn reluctance to eschew three pointers for drives to the hoop during games when the three point shots are not connecting.

2) Sometimes the Celtics lose focus against inferior teams, which can prolong a series (or even cost the Celtics a series, as happened in last year's Eastern Conference Finals versus Miami). 

Errant three point shooting and lack of focus may cost Boston a game, and Donovan Mitchell may take over one game by himself, but it is difficult to picture Cleveland beating Boston four times.

Boston will defeat Cleveland in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:09 PM



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