May 25, 2024

Celtics prepare their game plan for Cavaliers: ‘You have to pick your poison’

Late last week, after advancing out of the first round of the 2024 NBA playoffs, the Boston Celtics were limited in what they could install for the second round. Since they didn’t know whether they would meet the Cleveland Cavaliers or Orlando Magic, coach Joe Mazzulla said he tried to base practice plans around concepts that would be similar against either team. At that point, he wasn’t sure whether the Celtics would run into the Cavaliers and their dynamic backcourt, or the Magic and their powerful, playmaking forwards.

Boston learned its opponent Sunday when Cleveland came back to beat Orlando in Game 7 of their first-round series. One day later, the Celtics had their first chance to share their thoughts on the matchup with the Cavaliers.  Mazzulla, Jaylen Brown and Derrick White detailed some of what they expect in the second round.

Mitchell great, but ‘other things’ could decide series

Cavaliers star Donovan Mitchell played through pain during the first round to average 28.7 points per game. He grew more productive later in the series, tallying 119 points over the final three contests. Still, as Mazzulla pointed out, the Cavaliers lost Mitchell’s biggest individual performance, a 50-point outing in Game 6. Mitchell and Darius Garland combined to score 71 points in that game on 32-for-53 shooting, but the rest of Cleveland’s players totaled 25 points on 10-for-33 from the field.

“So you saw in Game 6 it was a 50-point performance in a loss,” Mazzulla said. “And you saw in Game 7 that he had (39 points and five assists) in a win. So you have to pick your poison. It’s gotta be disciplined.”

Though the Celtics will want to take away Mitchell’s individual rhythm, the Magic were able to overcome it when they shut off his supporting cast. Mazzulla doesn’t want to spring other leaks by selling out to stop Mitchell and Garland.

“When you’re playing against guys like (Mitchell) and a team that has dynamic guards it usually comes down to the other things,” Mazzulla said. “It comes down to the impact that (Caris) LeVert, (Max) Strus, (Evan) Mobley, (Isaac) Okoro, those guys have. Transition defense, offensive rebounds, turnovers. Just really all of the details in the margins that we talked about in the last series kinda go under-shadowed when you see a caliber player like a Garland or a Mitchell. It still comes down to the margins and the details in this one.”

Even while losing the series, the Magic managed to disrupt Cleveland’s offense. The Cavaliers made 8.6 3-pointers per game, the lowest average of any team in the first round. That was one sign of how well Orlando stuck with the shooters around Mitchell.

Based on Mazzulla’s words, the Celtics could start the series with a similar game plan.

The focus is going to be on Donovan Mitchell, but the Celtics aren’t forgetting Cleveland’s supporting cast. (Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Cleveland’s ‘spurtability’ a factor

The Cavaliers only scored 100.0 points per 100 possessions during the first round, which ranked 15th out of 16 teams to reach the playoffs. Only the New Orleans Pelicans, who the Oklahoma City Thunder swept, scored less efficiently.

Mazzulla still highlighted Cleveland’s ability to put together flurries.

“One of the things they do well is an ability to go on runs,” Mazzulla said. “Just kind of with their talent and also their effort and their defense.”

That strength was evident during the third quarter of Game 7, when the Cavaliers flew out of a double-digit deficit by outscoring Orlando 33-15. Mitchell, who had 17 points in the quarter, outscored the Magic by himself. Cleveland held Orlando to 4-for-24 shooting during the period.

“Down 18 points, and they just never blinked,” White said. “They just keep competing. We learned that first-hand when we played them in the regular season. They never give up, they’re always competing, and it’s going to be a fun challenge.”

Despite Cleveland’s troubles scoring against Orlando, Brown said the Cavaliers have “a little bit more offensive firepower” than the Miami Heat did last round. White said Mitchell and Garland are incredibly talented.

“Quick, can shoot it, can score from all three levels, so definitely a difficult challenge,” White said. “You gotta take that individual pride and take on the challenge and then understand that it’s not a one-on-one game. Everybody’s gotta be a participant and help each other out. It kind of goes hand in hand. As an individual, you gotta do what you gotta do, try to understand that you got your teammates behind you as well.”

Mazzulla said the Celtics will need to be sharp to avoid giving up runs.

“Managing the game is super important because they have the ability to really make you pay for the mistakes that you make,” Mazzulla said. “And I thought they did a good job of that, especially in Game 7, so it was good to focus on the details that are important, attacking and defending them and be ready to go (in the second-round opener).”



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Not as much switching?

White said one difference between Miami and Cleveland is in the Cavaliers’ usual defensive approach.

“Obviously Miami switched a lot,” White said. “You never really know (from) series to series. Teams might not switch the whole year, then they do it in the playoffs. You never know. Cleveland doesn’t switch as much as Miami does, so from that aspect, it’s going to be different. We’ve just got to continue to execute and get into our sets and get to the spots we need to get to.”

Cleveland’s defense relies heavily on Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen’s rim protection. Though Allen missed the final three games of the first round with bruised ribs and is listed as questionable for Game 1 against Boston, Mobley can be a deterrent on his own. He averaged 3.0 blocks per game against Orlando.

“I think he’s a good, young defender,” Brown said. “Kind of similar to how Bam (Adebayo) is in Miami: athletic, good feet, makes the right reads. So just be aggressive, make the right play, and the game will tell you what to do.”

Mazzulla said the Celtics’ spacing and rim reads will be important against Cleveland’s shot blockers.

“They have length on the perimeter too with active hands,” Mazzulla said. “And they’ve got length in their rim protection, so space discipline and making the right read over and over again are two important things to combat their length.”

(Top photo of Donovan Mitchell: Jason Miller / Getty Images)