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

Celtics-Cavaliers: 5 takeaways as Boston pushes Cleveland to the brink

A valiant effort from the Cavaliers without Donovan Mitchell can't prevent the Celtics from grabbing a commanding 3-1 series lead.

The Celtics pull out a win on the road, pushing the Cavaliers to the brink, but could use a smooth offensive performance at home.

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CLEVELAND — Though it ultimately didn’t work out, there was precedent for what the Cavaliers hoped to do against Boston on Monday in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.

The underdogs had to play without their MVP guard and their center.

The opponent was the Celtics.

LeBron James was sitting in the front row in street clothes.

The last time those ingredients all came together was on Feb. 1, when the Los Angeles Lakers faced the Celtics in Boston with both James and center Anthony Davis unavailable to play.

Easy night for the guys in green? Hardly. The remaining Lakers showed up the Celtics and, to a degree, their two stars with an unlikely 114-105 victory.

This time, however, the variables were a little off. Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen were the two sidelined starters. James was just there as a visiting Cavs alumnus, his Lakers done for two weeks already. And the Celtics already had been humbled once in this series, so they weren’t about to let it happen again.

Here are five takeaways from the 109-102 victory that has Boston a win away from its sixth East finals appearance in eight years.

With Donovan Mitchell out in Game 4, Darius Garland delivers big for the Cavaliers. Can they coordinate star performances?

1. Bad calf bad for Cavs

What is it with calf strains this postseason? Giannis Antetokounmpo never got on the court for Milwaukee because of his. Boston’s Kristaps Porzingis has missed five games and counting since straining his right one in the first round vs. Miami. Now it’s Mitchell, whose left calf bit him Saturday in Game 3 and didn’t heal enough by Monday.

All Mitchell did over the first three games was average 31.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists while hitting 53% of his 3-point attempts, making him easily the best player in the series.

His absence hurt the Cavs offensively, not just in the production lost, but in enabling Boston to shift its defensive focus to players less accustomed to such heat.

The ”others” hung in there admirably. The Cavs even led briefly early in the third quarter, 65-64, and scratched back late to 100-95, forcing Boston into its first official “clutch” minutes of the postseason.

Darius Garland, Mitchell’s backcourt mate, shouldered the biggest load and scored 30 points. Evan Mobley rose to the challenge, hitting 8-of-13 shots. And Max Strus hit his first five 3-pointers, just as Cleveland envisioned when they acquired him last summer.

But …

2. It wasn’t enough

Strus missed his final four 3-point attempts on his way to fouling out. Mobley needed even more offensive opportunities, but the Cavs went a little 3-crazy, making just 3-of-13 in the fourth quarter and 15-of-48 overall.

That’s their most attempts, regular season or playoffs, since March 2023 when they also shot 48 in a game against Boston.

Maybe it made sense because they were missing Mitchell’s firepower. But getting the ball inside more against veteran Al Horford (who starts in Porzingis’ absence) might have meant higher percentage shots.

And it could have gotten the Cavs to the foul line a little more as they shot just seven free throws to the Celtics’ 24 and got outscored on freebies 21-5.

Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff didn’t like the whistle disparity, saying his guys weren’t rewarded when they attacked the basket. Garland trespassed most frequently in the paint, wound up on the floor plenty and shot just two free throws.

“Seven free throw attempts in 48 minutes is tough,” Garland said. “We drive the ball. A lot. Seven free throws. Two of them are techs. So five total in a 48-minute game.”

Garland, an All-Star two years ago, played hard and reached 40 minutes while lugging four fouls. He was his team’s only starter in positive plus-minus territory at plus-1. But a key for the Cavs in the immediate if not longer-term future will be getting him to mesh better with Mitchell.

Note: During the season, on Garland’s 12 biggest scoring nights, Mitchell didn’t play in seven of them and shot horribly in two more. Garland needs the ball in his hands to have an impact.

3. Boston vs. Boston? Celtics win

This one had the markings of a trap game for the Celtics, but they got much of that vulnerability out of their system when they lost Game 2. They might need regular reminders that they are deeper, more talented and simply better than most of the NBA, but generally, one instance per series is sufficient.

Boston was stronger on the boards (48-32), better on the break (22 points in nine opportunities) and cleaned up a turnover issue (10 in the first half, five from there). “Passing to the guys in the green jerseys,” coach Joe Mazzulla said. “That’s the most poise you can have.”

They also deserve some credit for Cleveland’s frosty 4-for-23 shooting from the 3-point line in the second half.

“Everybody talks about clutch offense,” Mazzulla said. “I thought our clutch defense was good.”

4. Brown as the night’s ‘heel’

Boston’s Jaylen Brown got tangled up with Strus in the second quarter and, from that point on, became the target of boos from the capacity crowd at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.

The Celtics wing had hit a short jumper, then fell to the floor. Strus nearly tripped over him, and appeared to brush his left foot against Brown’s head as he stepped over. Brown quickly grabbed Strus’ foot, sending the Cavs wing to the floor.

A review determined it was simply a common foul, nothing flagrant, but the Cleveland fans let Brown hear it the rest of the night.

Later, Brown had an interaction with official Tyler Ford that drew attention. He came out high on the right wing and bumped into the official before teammate Jayson Tatum got Brown the ball.

Brown steadied himself enough to sink a 3-pointer that made it 105-97 with 1:09 left. That sealed it — even LeBron got up from his courtside seat and exited through a tunnel.

5. Big storylines heading to Game 5

Mitchell’s aching calf and Allen’s sore ribs will be of utmost concern to the Cavaliers heading into what might be their final outing of the season on Wednesday in Game 5 (7 p.m. ET, TNT).

If it is, that would mean they played their last home game Monday. And considering all the speculation about Mitchell’s desire for a contract extension — or failing that, his interest in playing elsewhere — it’s conceivable he might not suit up again for Cleveland.

Porzingis probably will stay on the sideline a while longer, a luxury afforded the team that’s up 3-1. One Celtics injury unlikely to disrupt their rotation is the chest bruise Brown suffered when Tatum celebrated a bit too hard after that final 3-pointer. Brown expressed some legit pain when Tatum whacked him.

“I didn’t realize how hard I hit him,” Tatum said. “I’ve been lifting a lot lately.”

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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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