May 25, 2024

Celtics-Cavaliers preview: With Kristaps Porziņģis, Jarrett Allen injured how do teams matchup?

Before it became clear the Boston Celtics would meet the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round, Derrick White was asked to give a scouting report on the Cavaliers and Orlando Magic.

“Um, they’re both good,” White said.

If that’s not enough of a preview for Boston’s second-round series against Cleveland, which begins Tuesday at TD Garden, The Athletic’s Celtics writers Jay King and Jared Weiss broke it down a little more in-depth after another high-scoring performance from Donovan Mitchell knocked out the Magic on Sunday.

What makes the Cavs dangerous?

King: The Cavaliers have had a strange season. They ran into some potential trouble early in the year when Darius Garland and Evan Mobley missed extended time at once, but surged without the two starters. From the middle of December until the All-Star break, Cleveland played some of the league’s best basketball, going 23-5 with a dominant plus-11.5 net rating. Garland and Mobley returned before the end of that run, but the Cavaliers discovered a winning formula before they did. Mitchell ran the show, Jarrett Allen held it down inside and their teammates spaced the court and fired away.

Things haven’t gone so smoothly since. The Cavaliers finished the regular season on a 12-17 spiral with the 20th-ranked offense and 25th-ranked defense during that stretch. It didn’t help that Mitchell missed many of those games, but Cleveland dealt with other issues, including the imperfect fit between its two starting big men, Mobley and Allen. The midseason stretch looms as proof the Cavaliers can touch a high level when at their best, but, after struggling mightily to score against Orlando, what are the odds they can truly challenge Boston?

Weiss: Cleveland winning the series without Allen was impressive. It wasn’t like the Kristaps Porziņģis situation where Boston was facing a depleted team, as Orlando is tough and talented, if flawed offensively. Cleveland had to earn it. And they did that with Allen missing the last three games of the series with a rib injury and former Celtics Marcus Morris and Tristan Thompson in the rotation. Winning with that bench in 2024 is a feat unto itself.

It might be Cleveland’s defensive depth that hurts them. Allen couldn’t make it back for Game 7, so will he be ready for Game 1 48 hours later? Everyone in their bench rotation at the moment is someone Boston can target with ease. How will Cleveland put together good defensive units if Allen is out, especially with Celtics killer Dean Wade also out with a right knee sprain? Mobley looked allergic to making contact on screens, so Boston’s defensive personnel should be able to stay on Mitchell and Garland. It seems like Cleveland is too depleted to handle Boston’s offensive versatility, even without Porziņģis.

How do the Celtics deal with missing Kristaps Porziņģis?

King: The Porziņģis absence will hurt the Celtics, of course, but this could be an OK series to be without him. Al Horford can space out the Cavaliers’ big men and make it tough for them to protect the rim. (A healthy Porziņģis could, too, but he doesn’t spend as much time spotting up on the perimeter as Horford does.) As gifted as Mobley and Allen are defensively, Cleveland has some weaknesses on that end of the court, including a lack of size in the backcourt. That could make things extremely difficult for them against all of Boston’s big guards and wings, especially if Horford can occupy Allen (assuming he returns).

Behind Horford, the Celtics will likely give Luke Kornet the first chance at backup minutes, though Joe Mazzulla could also consider Xavier Tillman in that spot. I could be crazy, but I don’t think a lineup with Tatum at center is totally out of the question, either. Though it would put the Celtics at a size disadvantage, Allen would likely have problems trying to keep up with nothing but perimeter players.

Weiss: Especially if Allen plays, Kornet seems the likely choice. Boston went with him as the backup center in their prior matchups, and his length is paramount in countering Cleveland’s aerial threat. Cleveland could hurt Boston on the glass, so they’ll need his length there just to ensure they finish off possessions well. Since Cleveland has small guards, Boston’s matchup hunting in the post would be very effective. But can they get Cleveland to switch without Porziņģis out there? That will be tough to pull off.

The biggest test for the Celtics in the second round might be how to handle Garland and Mitchell. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

How does Boston handle the Garland-Mitchell backcourt?

King: Boston’s game plan against the Cavaliers should begin with trying to limit the impact of their dynamic backcourt in Mitchell and Garland. Though our own Joe Vardon wrote a great story on Garland’s recent lack of scoring aggression, he can control a game with either his scoring or playmaking. Mitchell was delivering one of the best seasons of any guard this season before he got injured after the All-Star break. Together, they are a lot to deal with. They put a lot of pressure on a defense.

Cleveland still wasn’t able to score consistently against the Magic, an elite defensive team, but that doesn’t mean Mitchell and Garland will remain quiet. The Celtics will need to be on high alert against those guys.

Weiss: Jrue Holiday on Garland just seems like a huge advantage for Boston. Holiday’s ability to disrupt a player’s rhythm and body them up throughout a series is as good as it gets in the league. Since Jaylen Brown seems to often guard his friend, Mitchell, White will spend much of his night chasing Max Strus around. Cleveland can bother Boston with its rim running and rebounding (or Wade turning into Klay Thompson), but Boston matches up so well against Cleveland’s backcourt.

A bonus: Boston can switch and still maintain good matchups, while Horford will probably be more helpful in containing Cleveland’s guards than Porziņģis would be. But if Garland and Mitchell can get to the paint and force Horford to drop closer to the rim, they can start feasting on pull-up 3s or kick-outs to Strus.

Who can the Celtics target?

Weiss: The irony of the Magic series is that Orlando started to come back against Cleveland by having Franz Wagner attack Mobley in isolation. Since Mobley is one of the most imposing defenders in the NBA, it didn’t make sense at first. But with Orlando in a small lineup, they were able to space the floor well while Mobley would let Wagner get to the free-throw line before the Magic wing would start his actual attack. Paolo Banchero was able to muscle through him as well to get Mobley deep in the paint and then use fakes to get Mobley in the air for fouls.

It looked a lot like the kind of moves Tatum uses when he has those same clearout opportunities. While a lot of Brown’s package wouldn’t work against Mobley, since the Cavs defender can take away a lot of those fadeaways and quick pull-ups, Tatum’s ability to shoulder his way across the paint and finish with a finger roll makes him the ideal person for this matchup.

If Allen is coming off the bench or at least playing hurt, it will be easier for Boston to get Mobley involved in pick-and-rolls and then get him switched onto Tatum. Most importantly, getting Mobley up near the point of attack more when Allen is off the floor gives Boston so much room to attack behind him. Mobley is generally a nightmare defender for most players, but Tatum can still score on him with his strength better than almost anyone in the league.

King: The Cavaliers ranked seventh in defensive efficiency, but will have some matchup problems in the second round. In their starting lineup, I expect Boston to try picking on Garland, who knows where to be but will be outmatched physically at 6-foot-1, 192 pounds. Even White and Holiday will have a significant size advantages against him, never mind Tatum and Brown if Garland gets stuck on them in switches.

The Celtics found some success going at Miami’s smaller defenders, including Tyler Herro, and can be lethal when they have a matchup to hunt. Against Cleveland, Boston should have a few.

Who is the X-factor?

King: White might be past the “X-factor” stage at this point, but if he sustains his play from the first round, I just don’t know what opponents will do against the Celtics. He shot 47.7 percent on 3-pointers while attempting nearly nine per game. He averaged 22.4 points per game on an efficient 74.3 percent true shooting. And he did all of that while providing his usual elite defense. Tatum and Brown are tough enough to defend anyway. When White scores as much as he did against Miami, the Celtics can burn any sort of defensive coverage.

Weiss: White is much closer to a bonafide star than he is an X-factor at this point of his career, but this Celtics team is so stacked with talent that anyone can be considered an X-factor. Horford is the guy and it’s not just that he has to hold this whole thing together without Porziņģis. It will be easy for Horford to make good decisions on the ball or execute Boston’s defensive coverages. The real questions: Can he take advantage of the clean looks Cleveland will yield on the pick-and-pop? And can he defend above the rim to prevent Allen and Mobley from dunking all over Boston?

(Top photo of Jayson Tatum: Winslow Townson / Getty Images)