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

Celtics-Cavaliers: 5 takeaways as Boston shows no signs of rust in series opener

Jaylen Brown sets the tone, Derrick White stays hot from deep and the Celtics dominate in Game 1 vs. the Cavs.

The Celtics shoot 18-for-46 from 3-point range in Game 1 while the Cavaliers go 11-for-42.

• Download the NBA App

BOSTON — It’s doubtful any of the other 19,155 in the seats had more fun than Paul Pierce on Tuesday night at TD Garden. But most of the Boston fans went home happy, while the Cleveland Cavaliers retreated to their hotel rooms to reset after a Game 1 that came too soon, too hard for their liking.

Here are five takeaways from the 120-95 victory that put Boston up 1-0 in the teams’ Eastern Conference semifinal series:

1. The mismatch most expected

The Cavaliers had spent most of the previous two weeks bouncing back and forth between Cleveland and Orlando, pushed to seven by a Magic team that — let’s never forget — they preferred to face in the first round rather than Miami or Philadelphia. That bit of gamesmanship and maneuvering in Game No. 82 put the Cavs on the 1-8 vs. 4-5 side of the bracket. Directly, in other words, in the path of the Celtics.

They regretted what they’d wished for almost immediately. Boston jumped to a 12-2 lead and led at the quarter breaks by six, 10, 15 and finally 25. The Celtics had been idle for six days, not so long as to get rusty, a nice stretch to get rest.

They had no more time to prep specifically for Cleveland than the Cavs did for them — the series wasn’t set until Sunday afternoon — but that mattered not one bit. Boston did what Boston has done all season, this time without injured center Kristaps Porzingis (right calf strain).

The Cavs scrambled to keep up, riding guard Donovan Mitchell’s scoring as far as it would take them but not a step further. They talked of this one as a “feeling-out” game, and coach J.B. Bickerstaff said, “This is going to be a tough, long series.”

Or maybe just feel like it.

2. Boston has arrows, Cleveland quivers

Some recreational arguments broke out on social media late in and after the Celtics’ lopsided victory debating Mitchell vs. Jayson Tatum as an individual talent and team cornerstone.

It was driven by Tatum’s inefficient work so far this spring — 41.9% shooting overall, 29% from 3 in the first round, followed by his 7-for-19 (0-for-5 3s) struggles Tuesday. But it was a silly argument for two reasons. One, Tatum did plenty of other things well, with 11 rebounds, five assists and three blocks. And two, the Celtics simply turned to others, of whom they have plenty.

Jaylen Brown led Boston’s attack early with 15 of his team-high 32 points in the first quarter and 20 by halftime, at which point Tatum was 4-for-12. Then it was Derrick White’s turn, scoring 14 of his 25 in the second half, winding up 7-for-12 from the arc.

That’s why Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla — moments after a 25-point rout in a feel-good home Game 1 — could talk about his team finding yet another gear in this postseason. At both ends.

“If you want to get to where you want to get to against teams like this,” Mazzulla said, “you can always fight for another level.”

Struggling with his shot, Jayson Tatum finds a way to impact the opener with defense and passing.

3. ‘Playoff Spida’ not enough

Mitchell can be a one-man wrecking crew, but his demo work often results in rubble. He scored 50 in Game 6 against Orlando but lost, then 39 in Game 7 to win. This time, it was 33 points and another defeat. His minus-11 was the least bad of the Cleveland starters.

Valiant, futile efforts like this fuel all the speculation about Mitchell’s willingness to stay in Cleveland vs. seeking more potent teammates elsewhere. It’s the ominous backdrop to this series, stealing joy while turning it into win-or-worry.

Mitchell didn’t go there after the loss. “I trust my guys,” he said. “Upset we lost but not overreacting.”

But there were two days for the numbers and trends to wash over them. From Mitchell’s shortage of help (he and Evan Mobley shot 20-for-37, the other Cavs just 17-for-53) to Bickerstaff’s ongoing search for answers.

Cleveland, it’s worth noting, is 5-8 in last year’s and this year’s playoffs. It hasn’t won a road game yet and has scored fewer than 100 points in 10 of the 13 games. Ugh.

4. Bench’s big impact

Payton Pritchard scored 16 points. The five Cavs reserves who played combined to score 15.

Luke Kornet grabbed 10 rebounds, six on the offensive end, in his 21 minutes. The Cavs, across 240 minutes (5×48), got only seven offensive rebounds. There was a moment deep in the first half when the 7-foot-2 journeyman, more prominent now with Porzingis out, actually barked at the Celtics’ bench and smiled after a bit of board work.

Then there was Sam Hauser, the Celtics backup who took only shot, scored one point, committed one foul, went scoreless — and exited with a game-high plus-22.

A note about Pritchard: He has been the Celtics’ designated end-of-period shooter this season. Y’know those lame, slightly-too-late shots many starters heave up, careful not to ding their shooting percentages? Boston found a willing chucker in Pritchard, who signed a contract extension, is guaranteed $30 million over the next four seasons and thus isn’t worried about some shabby shooting being dragged out a contract time.

Beating buzzers usually is a star’s work, but Pritchard revels in this.

5. Battle of the big returnees

There are rumbling that Porzingis, sidelined with that strained calf, might be able to return if this series lasts long enough. But it might not unless Cleveland gets some healing power from its own big man, Jarrett Allen. Allen has missed the past four games with a right rib contusion.

A rebounding and rim protection specialist, Allen wouldn’t necessarily put the Cavs’ offense into triple digits. But he could help make double digits winnable. The Celtics beat them up 55-38 on the boards and extended enough possessions for 11 second-chance shots.

“Every day, he tries to do more and more and test the mobility. That’s where we’ll get the signs,” Bickerstaff said. “We’re not gonna put him out there if he can’t protect himself.”

Every victory buys Boston more time before it needs Porzingis. Every defeat dials up the urgency for Cleveland and Allen, lest he runs out of games.

* * * 

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. 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.