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

Celtics-Cavaliers: 4 things to look for in Game 3

After pulling even with Boston in Game 2, Cleveland returns home looking to take a series edge.

From Donovan Mitchell's HUGE 2nd half to 3-point shooting and stellar rebounding, Cleveland had all areas working in Game 2.

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CLEVELAND – What purportedly was going to be swift and fairly easy for the Boston Celtics is looking now like anything but.

Rather than rolling through the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals on their way to The Finals – with one more series against a beaten-up (Knicks) or overmatched (Pacers) foe as a mere speedbump – the Celtics face a bit of a predicament. Not only did they get thoroughly outplayed by the Cavs Thursday in Game 2, they now have to fix things on the road, in a hostile building, against a rejuvenated opponent.

It’s a pattern similar to what the Celtics created in the first round against Miami, except it’s not: The Heat won Game 2 in Boston thanks mostly to flukey-good 3-point shooting (23 of 43, .535), then went back to being shorthanded and rather docile.

Cleveland’s performance in its 118-94 victory at TD Garden was more measured, more thorough, a tie game through 24 minutes that coach J.B. Bickerstaff, star Donovan Mitchell and the rest strategically unlocked in outscoring the Celtics 64-40 the rest of the way.

So, gentlemen’s sweep or real combative series? Everyone soon will know more. Here are four things to look for as the series shifts to Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse for Game 3 Saturday (8:30 ET, ABC):

1. Watch the Celtics’ 3-point tracker

Boston ranked first in 3-pointers taken (42.5) this season and first in makes (16.5). Well, the Celtics shot 35 of them in Game 2 but made only eight. How often did they win all year when making eight or fewer? Once.

Media skeptics can argue (and have) that the Celtics are too dependent on the long ball, that it allows for too much serendipity to creep into their outcomes. But their 64-18 record in the regular season and, specifically, their 37-7 mark when getting off 42 or more shots from the arc say different.

Contrary to some suggestions after Game 1 that Cleveland had to keep up by jacking more 3s, the Cavs instead did better defensively, running Boston shooters off the 3-point line or contesting more effectively the ones they took. The 22.9% of Game 2 (8-of-35) was the Celtics’ second-worst rate all season.  

2. A close game, or at least closer

Of the 15 games these teams have played this spring, only one – Cleveland’s 104-103 series-tilter in Game 5 against Orlando – qualifies as a thriller. Otherwise, the Cavaliers have won by 14, 10, 12 and 24 points, while losing by 38, 23, 7 and 25.

The Celtics have been the same. Their victories so far in these playoffs have come by 20, 20, 14, 34 and 25 points. Their defeats, by 10 and 24. Heck, Boston hasn’t faced a single “clutch” game so far, by NBA definition (within five points in the final five minutes). Cleveland has had two.

Sooner or later, one of these contests is going to be a nail-biter and we’ll see which team is more capable of closing. Their respective bodies of work favor the Celtics, who had 33 clutch games in the regular season and won 63.6% of them, fourth-best in the NBA. The Cavaliers ranked 20th at 47.6%, going 20-22 in clutch situations.

3. Iron Man Mitchell

Donovan Mitchell is Cleveland’s star and demonstrably its Most Valuable Player. How do we know? Let’s trot out the on/off court numbers that have built such compelling cases for Denver’s Nikola Jokic in winning the league’s MVP award in three of the past four seasons.

In Jokic’s MVP years, the Nuggets were 8.9, 16.3 and most recently 20.4 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the floor than when he was off. That’s the difference between a top contender – and 2023 champion – and an also-ran. So far this postseason, Jokic’s net rating is 16.7.

Mitchell? He’s at 19.1 so far for the Cavs. That’s more than double his net rating (9.3) from the regular season. But wait, it gets worse: In these playoffs, Cleveland’s offensive rating with Mitchell has been 106.0, which would have ranked 30th anyway in the regular season. But without him, it is a prehistoric 89.0, conjuring flashbacks to belted shorts, hand-checking and no 3-point arc.

Mitchell sitting down has been like the Cavs stepping into an empty elevator shaft. In his approximately 76 minutes on the court against Boston, his team has outscored the Celtics by 27. In his 20 on the side, the Cavs have been outscored by 28.

So the easy answer for Bickerstaff and crew seems to be, don’t sit him down. Right. Beyond the wear-and-tear that would impose, there is a point of diminishing returns.

Consider: Fifteen times in his 53 playoff appearances, Mitchell has logged 40 minutes or more. His Jazz and Cavs teams have gone 6-9 on those nights, suggesting more desperation behind the minutes than score control.  

4. The return of … 1 big man?

We might have a training room and medical staff competition behind the scenes of this East semifinals. Each team has a big, valuable patient hoping to return to the fray. Whoever gets back first (assuming one does) could swing the series.

For Cleveland, it’s Jarrett Allen, who has been out for five games with bruised ribs on his right side. In some ways, Allen’s absence has opened up the Cavs’ offense, with wing Isaac Okoro bringing mobility and range to what usually is a two-big lineup. Still, Allen’s rim protection and rebounding are most valuable in the playoff grind.

For Boston, Kristaps Porzingis still is sidelined with a strained right “soleus” (calf). He hurt it in Game 4 against Miami and has been out for 12 days. Typically it is an injury that can take weeks to mend. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo strained his soleus on April 9, didn’t play again and admitted after the Bucks’ elimination in six games by Indiana that he never got close to playing.

NBA teams are especially careful since Kevin Durant suffered from the same strain in 2019. That postseason, Durant sat out a month, missing nine games during Golden State’s run to another Finals. Down 3-1, they brought him back in Game 5 and – pow! – he lasted less than 12 minutes before his Achilles tendon in that leg tore. Durant missed the entire 2019-20 season.

Of the two, Allen would seem more likely to return. He and forward Dean Wade (knee) were listed as questionable on the Cavs’ injury report for Game 3, while Porzingis is out. Both are missed.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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