2024 Playoffs: East Semifinals | Celtics (1) vs. Cavaliers (4)

NBA Playoffs: What to expect in Celtics-Cavaliers series

Cleveland presents a bigger obstacle than Miami, but Boston remains the heavy favorite as the playoffs continue.

The Celtics have an abundance of defensive options to throw at Cavs star Donovan Mitchell.

• Download the NBA App

The Boston Celtics dropped a home game in the first round, but won their other four games by an average of 22 points and remain the clear favorite to reach the NBA Finals out of the Eastern Conference. With how good they’ve been all season, anything less would be a huge disappointment.

The next test for the Celtics should be tougher than the first. Boston won the season series 2-1, though all three games were within five points in the last five minutes and were all won by the home team.

The Celtics will have the extra home game once again, though they likely won’t have Kristaps Porzingis.

Series schedule

Here’s how to watch the Celtics vs. Cavaliers series:

All times Eastern Standard Time

  • Game 1: Cavaliers vs. Celtics, Tuesday, May 7 (7 p.m., TNT)
  • Game 2: Cavaliers vs. Celtics, Thursday, May 9 (7 p.m., ESPN)
  • Game 3: Celtics vs. Cavaliers, Saturday, May 11 (8:30 p.m., ABC)
  • Game 4: Celtics vs. Cavaliers, Monday, May 13 (7 p.m., TNT)
  • Game 5: Cavaliers vs. Celtics, Wednesday, May 15 (TBD, TNT)
  • Game 6: Celtics vs. Cavaliers, Friday, May 17 (TBD, ESPN)
  • Game 7: Cavaliers vs. Celtics, Sunday, May 19 (TBD, TBD)

* = If necessary

Top storyline

Can Donovan Mitchell get some help? Mitchell is a terrific postseason performer who has now scored at least 30 points in 23 of his 51 career playoff games, with that total of 23 being one shy of Jayson Tatum (24/99) for ninth among active players.

But, even though Mitchell averaged 28.7 points, the Cavs scored just a point per possession over their seven games against the Orlando Magic. (Only New Orleans was less efficient in the first round.)

The Cavs will now face a defense that ranked one spot higher than that of the Magic. The Celtics have multiple great defenders they can assign to Mitchell, and they can put multiple defenders in front of him on every possession. The spotlight will be on Darius Garland, who suffered a drop-off in production this season and averaged just 14.9 points in the first round.

Keep your eyes on

Big man attrition. Porzingis’ absence leaves the Celtics with a starting lineup that was good but not great (plus-2.7 points per 100 possessions) in the regular season, though it was better (in a small sample size) in the first round. And with Al Horford in the starting lineup, the Celtics’ bench is a little thinner.

Porzingis might not be the only center missing at the start of this series, as the Cavs’ Jarrett Allen missed the final three games of the first round with a rib contusion. Cleveland has also been without Dean Wade, who gave them good minutes at the four in the regular season.

Over the the three regular season meetings, the Cavs were outscored by just one point in Allen’s 111 minutes on the floor, but were outscored by 14 (25.3 per 100 possessions) in his 33 minutes off the floor.

1 more thing to watch for each team

For Boston: Shots near the basket. The Celtics took more jumpers than any other team during regular season, with a league-high 57% of their shots from outside the paint. That rate was a tick higher (58%) in the first round, and they’re now without their leading post-up threat.

We know the Celtics can beat any team from the perimeter. They outscored their opponents by a league-high 10.7 points per game from 3-point range in the regular season and were a plus-11.4 from beyond the arc against Miami despite the Heat’s 23 3s in Game 2. But they can’t settle and need to turn defensive stops into transition opportunities to put less pressure on their 3-point shooting.

For Cleveland: Bench minutes. The Celtics had the top-ranked bench in the regular season, and it’s been better in the playoffs. The Cavs’ bench ranked 15th in the regular season and 11th in the first round, when they were outscored by 14 points per 100 possessions with Georges Niang on the floor.

Niang saw his minutes cut over the last three games, and Sam Merrill hit a couple of big shots in Cleveland’s comeback from 18 points down on Sunday. Returns from Allen and/or Wade would certainly help with the depth issues.

1 key number to know

100.7 – The Celtics allowed the Heat to score just 100.7 points per 100 possessions in the first round. Two teams (including the Cavs) scored fewer, but that was the Celtics’ best five-game stretch of defense and the Heat’s second worst five-game stretch off offense this season. Miami was without Jimmy Butler and couldn’t make up for his absence in the margins, ranking last in both free throw rate and offensive rebounding percentage in the first round.

The Cavs had the league’s No. 1 defense last season and ranked second on that end of the floor before the All-Star break this year. But they’re not the only great defensive team in this series.

The pick

Celtics in 5. They’re missing their starting center and facing a healthier team than their first-round opponent. But the Celtics remain the best team in the league and, with their Game 5 victory over Miami, they’re 22-4 without Porzingis. That includes a 10-3 mark against playoff teams, with the Celtics having outscored their opponents by 8.6 points per 100 possessions over those 13 games.

The Cavs are a very good team with a star who can give them a chance on any night. They’ve played well against Boston this season, but they haven’t shown that they can score efficiently enough to keep up with the Celtics over the next two weeks.

* * *

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X. 

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery