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Friday, May 10, 2024

If the Celtics Didn't Know, Now They Know: Cavaliers Seize Homecourt Advantage

Donovan Mitchell was the best player on the court and scored a game-high 29 points as the Cleveland Cavaliers stunned the Boston Celtics 118-94 to even up their second round series at 1-1, posting the largest margin of victory for a double digit underdog in an NBA playoff game in more than 30 years. The Cavaliers seized homecourt advantage as the series shifts to Cleveland for the next two games. Mitchell has the eighth highest playoff scoring average (28.0 ppg) in pro basketball history and he just dropped a game-high 39 points in Cleveland's 106-94 game seven win versus Orlando, so 29 points is an average playoff game for him--but his performance was anything but average: he shot 10-19 from the field (including 5-7 from three point range) while passing for a game-high eight assists, grabbing seven rebounds, and committing just one turnover in 39 minutes. He scored 23 second half points, matching the combined scoring total of all five Boston starters. Mitchell's game-high +38 plus/minus number looks like a typographical error for any playoff game, let alone for a player facing a team that won 64 regular season games. 

Mitchell was great, but he was not a one-man show, as Evan Mobley added 21 points, a game-high 10 rebounds, and five assists. Caris LeVert poured in 21 points in 27 minutes off of the bench, and Darius Garland contributed 14 points, seven rebounds, and four assists. The Cavaliers shot 47-86 (.547) from the field, outrebounded Boston 44-31, and held Boston's high-octane offense to 33-80 (.412) field goal shooting, including 8-35 (.229) three point shooting. 

The Cavaliers' slogan is "Let Em Know," and if the Celtics did not know that they would have to put forth some effort to win this series they know that now. Boston had a dominant regular season and has reached the Eastern Conference Finals five times in the past seven seasons, but the Celtics have two weaknesses: they rely too much on three point shooting, and they have a tendency to lose focus (as illustrated by their mediocre home playoff record in recent years). Without taking any credit away from Cleveland, it is fair to say that both weaknesses were on full display in this game.

Jayson Tatum led Boston with 25 points, but he shot just 7-17 from the field. Boston's starters shot 23-61 (.377) from the field, including 6-28 (.214) from three point range. "Stat gurus" tout the alleged superior efficiency of volume three point shooting but the reality is that heavy reliance on three point shooting is a high variance strategy that leaves a team vulnerable to blowout losses in games during which the three pointers are not falling and that team refuses to go to Plan B (or does not have a Plan B). The Celtics have four wing players who can attack the paint--Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White, and Jrue Holiday--but instead the Celtics jacked up three pointers and hoped for the best. Joe Mazzulla has proven that he is an excellent coach, but his insistence that the Celtics should fire up 50 three point shots per game could be a recipe for disaster: if the Celtics had launched 50 three pointers in this game then they might have lost by 50 points.

As Danny Ainge once noted sagely, the NBA playoffs are not the Tour de France: the Cavaliers will not start game three with a 24 point lead (nor did Boston start game two with a 25 point lead after taking game one, 120-95). The Celtics went 27-14 on the road this season, so the likelihood is that they will win at least one game in Cleveland to get back in the driver's seat--but needlessly prolonging a series can be costly: the Celtics fell down 3-0 to Miami last year, tied the series, and then lost at home in game seven after Tatum suffered an ankle injury during Boston's first possession. Every "extra" game played invites injury while also increasing the team's overall fatigue level. 

These Cavaliers look much different than the Cavaliers who were pushed around by the New York Knicks in the first round last year, so it is dangerous for the Celtics to let them have even a glimmer of hope.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM



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