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

Celtics-Cavaliers: 5 takeaways as Donovan Mitchell shines in 2nd half of Game 2 win

Donovan Mitchell delivers in the 2nd half, Evan Mobley finds his game and Boston turns in an 'unacceptable performance.'

Evan Mobley and Donovan Mitchell did a bit of everything in Game 2, combining for 50 points, 17 rebounds and 13 assists.

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BOSTON – They couldn’t win a playoff game on the road – until they did. They couldn’t crack 100 points – until they did that, too. The Cleveland Cavaliers had looked ripe for some lovely parting gifts before their Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Celtics even had begun, and their loss by 25 points in Game 1 had plenty of folks steering them toward the door. Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?

The Cavs had the temerity, though, to stick around for Game 2 on Thursday night at TD Garden (the NBA makes that kind of mandatory, by the way). And wouldn’t you know it, they flipped the script entirely with their 118-94 victory to even the series at 1-1.

Here are five takeaways as the series shifts to Cleveland for Game 3 on Saturday and Game 4 on Monday:

1. Picking his spots, picking his halves

Halfway through Game 2, Cleveland might have considered itself lucky to be tied at 54-54. Its one reliable, dynamic scorer, Donovan Mitchell, had taken only six shots and contributed only six points.

Two things were at work. The Celtics were throwing different defensive looks at him, reasonable given the 33 points he scored against them in Game 1. And Mitchell took that learning opportunity to make sure some teammates got involved at a deeper level.

Halfway through, Evan Mobley, Isaac Okoro and sixth man Caris LeVert had combined for 35 points – they had averaged 25.4 through Cleveland’s first eight playoff games. And Mitchell had five assists and was a plus-11 anyway.

Still, duty called. “When it was time to go, it was time to go,” Mitchell said later. “I knew at some point I was going to have to start shooting.”

That came in the third quarter. He started and ended that 36-point period for the Cavs with 3-pointers and had 10 points in between. He added seven more in the fourth before he took his first breather after halftime.

With 29 points, he joined LeBron James as the only Cavaliers to string together at least five games of 25+ points. So far in the series, his team is 27 points better when Mitchell is on the floor, 28 points worse when he sits.

2. Mobley stayed warm for 48 hours

Cleveland’s third-year power forward, admired for his defense and touted for his potential, had been hearing criticism lately for what by all appearances has been a plateaued offensive game. Through his first 13 postseason performances the past two seasons, Mobley had more games scoring in single digits (three) than he did with 17 points or more (two).

More than three quarters into this series, Mobley had only seven points with the Cavs headed toward their double-digit defeat. Then something happened midway through the fourth Tuesday: Mobley scored off a jump stop. Then he flipped in a bucket. He scooted past Luke Kornet for a layup. And kept going.

By the time he was done, Mobley had strung together five consecutive baskets in a 10-0 Cavs run. It gave him some rhythm and some confidence, and it carried over Thursday. He scored eight points in an early run that tied it 19-19 and even hit the fourth 3-pointer of his playoff life before the first quarter ended.

Mobley was essential in Cleveland’s 22 points in the paint in the opening 12 minutes and 60-44 dominance overall in Game 2. Credit goes to the film work Mobley did, building from his Game 1 spurt, and to Cavs teammates recognizing the mismatches and spots to get him the ball.

3. Celtics not ready for ring fitting

It’s a Michael Corleone thing in reverse. Every time Boston and the rest of the league are ready to buy in, the Celtics push them away again. They stumbled in Game 2 of the first round against a hobbled Miami team. Now they’ve done it again against a Cavs squad regarded until Thursday as little more than a speed bump.

They got outrebounded. They got outshot, both from distance and at the rim. None of the starters made even half his shots, and the Celtics’ whole performance lacked urgency.

The crowd was wise to the dreary work. They started streaming up the stairs into the night with 4:58 left and Boston down 111-87. One boisterous critic boomed, “Hey Tatum, we’ll be here when you’re ready! Wake up!”

“When you lose a game like that,” coach Joe Mazzulla said, “it could be a combination of tactics, a combination of effort, a combination of a little of all those things at times.”

“Unacceptable performance,” Boston’s Jaylen Brown called it.

4. LeVert gets comfy again at Garden

Two of Caris LeVert’s most explosive games ever have come on Boston’s parquet floor. He scored a career high of 51 points against the Celtics while with Brooklyn in March 2020. Then in October 2022, by then with Cleveland, he went for 41. He has only two other 40-point performances against everybody else, in all other buildings.

LeVert, wrapping his eighth NBA season, has started 229 games in his career across the regular season and playoffs. But only 53 have come with the Cavs since he arrived in a February 2022 trade from Indiana.

Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff has praised LeVert’s willingness to sacrifice for the group. He had a forgettable four points in Game 1 but was essential to the Game 2 victory. His 21 points in 27 minutes was the best bench output so far from either team, and LeVert did it without any threes, mostly cutting and creating.

“He’s just got that off-beat wiggle that’s difficult to stay in front of,” Bickerstaff said. “He’s also dangerous because he can make late passes that a lot of times defenses aren’t ready for.”

Said LeVert: “We heard all the last couple of days that Donovan didn’t have no help. So we wanted to show up for him and for our team, and we’ll keep doing that.”

5. ‘Winning is the priority’

Prior to tipoff, Bickerstaff paid the Celtics a big-time compliment, so glowing that it seemed fit for a concession speech rather than a one-game series assessment.

“Just watching this team as a whole, winning is such a priority,” he said. “You watch the way they play the game, and how unselfish. They have really talented players throughout their lineup, but they all understand their roles. As you sit back and watch the film and study them, you don’t see guys stepping outside of who they are in a way that’s going to impact other people. … It doesn’t appear from the outside it’s about ‘me’ at all.

By the end of the evening, the coach directed almost identical kudos at the Cavs themselves.

“I thought our guys executed the game plan to a tee,” Bickerstaff said. “When we defend the way we defended and the shots start to fall, what we do travels and we can win anywhere.”

Next venue: Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, where Cavs fans are getting a series rather than a mismatch. Game 3 is set for Saturday (8:30 ET, ABC).

“There is nothing else that matters,” Bickerstaff said. “There is no other agenda. We’ve got playoff games in front of us that we need to win, and the guys sacrifice and are willing to do whatever it takes to win, because they don’t want to disappoint one another.”

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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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