May 25, 2024

Celtics lose Game 2 as Cavs’ Donovan Mitchell cooks their ‘unacceptable’ defense

BOSTON — Jaylen Brown wanted to make it clear. This was unacceptable.

Another Game 2 loss on their home court, where the Boston Celtics faced an opponent that was hot from 3 and had a playmaker who got anywhere he wanted.

“It’s the playoffs, that can’t happen. I don’t care if you’re missing shots, you’ve got to guard the guy on the other end,” Brown said. “That allows you to miss more shots if you’re playing defense. But you can’t miss shots and then allow them to make shots at the other end. That was unacceptable.”

Donovan Mitchell cooked the Celtics once again. This time, they didn’t have an answer. The Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Celtics 118-94 to send the series back to Cleveland tied 1-1, as Mitchell proved he could beat everything Boston threw at him.

“He made some tough shots tonight and some tough contested 3s. You got to be up, but he’s a basketball player,” Brown said. “You got to have a little bit more alertness to him, and we’re just trying to take the challenge tonight. He got the best of us, made some tough baskets that allowed him to feel free to get downhill. We just got to keep making it tough.”

This is the first star guard the Celtics have faced in the postseason who is capable of picking apart each coverage and matchup the Celtics can offer. Brown knows him well, and he still was getting left in the dust.

“They have a lot of really good defenders, so we try to attack in the gaps. Tonight, they guarded me a little differently than they did before,” Mitchell said. “Hitting the 3 ball helps, so now you have to press up, they have to respect it to be able to move.”

When Brown or Jrue Holiday would press on Mitchell, Cleveland would set the screen well above the 3-point line.  He would get a clean release over the screen and then Al Horford would have to contend with an Evan Mobley roll.

If they sat back on Mitchell a bit, he would zoom into a pull-up 3 and bury it. There was no right answer.

“They tested our pick-and-roll defense. We have to get better at that,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “And like I said, I think a lot of that stuff in the paint came from transition because of our poor offensive spacing and our rim decisions at times.”

Mazzulla said the key for Mitchell was to create separation before the point of attack, much like the Miami Heat did with Tyler Herro in their Game 2 win last series.

“They are using off-ball (screens) to get him off there, so we just have to be a little more physical in our off-ball (defense),” Mazzulla said. “He got some of those by our communication. I think he hit one pick-and-roll one, and the rest of his 3s came in just our (reads), either miscommunication or body position at times, so just going to have to clean up those technical things of our individual defense.”

Boston finally tried trapping in the fourth quarter, initially pinning Mitchell against the sideline so aggressively that he had to call a timeout. But Cleveland came back out and solved that coverage immediately.

As Jayson Tatum spent much of the game failing to get clean looks over Max Strus, Mitchell’s flow of play looked effortless at times. But when asked whether watching Mitchell thrive in his comfort zone compounded Tatum’s frustration, the Celtics star didn’t want to make it about him.

“I don’t get into the one-on-one matchup, trying to outscore the other team’s best player,” Tatum said. “Just trying to focus on winning a championship. In the middle of the game, I’m not worried about individual matchups. I really just focus on the game plan that we’re trying to execute. I understand that other teams are not just gonna let me — it’s not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be a fight.”

Once again, the process is going to be an uphill climb. The Celtics are 14-14 at home in their last 28 playoff games.

“I’m only concerned with this year. Last year is last year,” Brown said. “In both of the games we lost here at home, we shot the ball incredibly bad, they shot the ball incredibly well, and then we didn’t play defense to our level tonight, and that’s all I can say.”

There is a bit of a shock from fans when the Celtics blow these games at home. They performed at a high level in the regular season, and any time they don’t look like it, there is cause for concern.

“I mean, that’s the narrative you might see on TV; the idea that we have a super team. It’s twofold, right?” Tatum said. “We didn’t have coach of the year, didn’t have the MVP. We only had two All-Stars, so you say we’re a super team, but we didn’t get rewarded like we are. But we know we’ve got a good team. We’re not perfect, we play the right way more often than not, and we know we’ve gotta be better.”

But the Celtics have always been a rope-a-dope team. It’s often the opponent that gets the first real knockdown of a battle with Boston. Both Miami and Cleveland stole one on the road against a team that was a lock at the Garden this year.

They’ve been able to shoot their way back into series in the past, but Cleveland isn’t likely to roll over offensively as the short-handed Heat did.

“Take it on the chin, you learn from it, and you come out and put your best foot forward for the next game,” Brown said. “Obviously, this was an unacceptable performance. We need to be ready to respond.”

Now they are in a series with a top-tier playmaker who has been here before. Mitchell knows how to pick his spots throughout the game. He knows how to read the Celtics’ game plan to know when it’s his time to attack.

Brown will have his chance to make things right as the series goes on. But Mitchell will be ready to adjust and attack.

“That’s the biggest thing on a night-to-night basis,” Mitchell said. “Did it tonight, then gotta do it again and again and again.”

(Photo of Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell:  Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)