Celtics-Cavaliers preview: Why Boston is still an overwhelming favorite even without Kristaps Porziņģis

The Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Boston Celtics (64-18) will face the fourth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers (48-34) in the second round of the 2024 NBA playoffs. This is the first playoff meeting between the two franchises since 2018, when Cleveland beat Boston in a seven-game Eastern Conference finals.

Armed with the league's most talented top six — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porziņģis, Jrue Holiday, Derrick White and Al Horford — the Celtics took a 23-6 record into Christmas, a 43-12 mark into the All-Star break and finished 64-18, owners of the NBA's best regular-season record (by seven games) and net rating (by 4.4 points per 100 possessions). Only Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls of 1995-96 and 1996-97 logged a greater average margin of victory per 100 possessions than this season's Celtics (+11.7).

Their reward was a first-round series against the Miami Heat, who beat Boston in Game 7 of last year's Eastern Conference finals. The Heat were without Jimmy Butler and Terry Rozier for this series and sans Jaime Jaquez Jr. in Game 5. It was no contest, save for Game 2, when Miami required a franchise playoff record 23 3-pointers to steal one. Boston won the other four games by a combined margin of 78 points.

Unfortunately, the Celtics lost Porziņģis to a right soleus strain in Game 4. He is expected to miss this entire second-round series. The 7-foot-3 Latvian's ability to draw bigs to the 3-point line, punish smaller defenders in the paint and protect the rim from both adds a layer of verticality to the Celtics that they will miss in his absence. Horford, who started on Boston's 2022 NBA Finals run, will answer that call again.

Set with guards and bigs, the Cavaliers retooled at the wing, mainly adding Max Strus as a starter alongside Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. They shuffled Caris LeVert, Isaac Okoro, Georges Niang, Marcus Morris and Sam Merrill into the wing rotation, too. And still the biggest questions about Cleveland concerned the redundancies of those star-caliber guards and bigs.

After winning 51 games in 2022-23, only to lose a first-round series to the New York Knicks, the Cavaliers' 18-15 start to this season felt like more of the same. It is hard to build around two non-shooting bigs or two small(ish) ball-dominant guards, let alone both, but the sheer collection of talent is enough to win.

It was curious that Cleveland won 17 of 18 games and played its best basketball over a midseason stretch, mostly without Garland and Mobley. Once the roster's two rising stars returned, the Cavs finished the regular season on a 13-18 skid — even more curious. It did not help that Mitchell, an MVP candidate for the first half of the season, missed 27 games to a series of injuries. In the aggregate, Cleveland's high-priced starting lineup yielded a net rating of +2.3 points per 100 possessions — good but not great.

The Cavaliers' first-round series followed a familiar script. They wiped the floor with Orlando in the first two games, suffocating the Magic's offense and winning by a total of 34 points. This was everything we expected from so talented a group. Then, Orlando repaid the favor in Games 3 and 4, holding Cleveland's offense to fewer than 80 points in a pair of blowouts. It was everything we worried about with the Cavs.

A rib injury cost Allen Games 5-7, but his co-stars responded. Mobley saved Game 5 with one of his 21 blocks in the series. Mitchell scored 89 points in the final two games. His 50 in Game 6 were not enough, but his 39-9-5 decided Game 7. All of it leaves us wondering which lineup is Cleveland's best in Round 2.

Boston won the regular-season series against Cleveland, 2-1.

The Cavaliers were without Mobley in the first two meetings — back-to-back Celtics wins at TD Garden — and Mitchell for the final showdown, a wild affair. Cleveland needed 20 fourth-quarter points from Dean Wade (now out for the season) to complete a 22-point comeback in the final frame of a 104-103 victory.

Again: Dean Wade outscored the entire Celtics in his franchise's biggest fourth-quarter comeback ever. That was the difference between a comfortable season sweep for Boston and a narrower margin. This is what the Cavaliers can hope for — something to upset the normal order of things, to rattle these Celtics.

Cleveland's expected starting five did not play a single minute against Boston this season. Likewise, the Celtics' quintet of White, Holiday, Brown, Tatum and Horford played all of three minutes opposite the Cavaliers. The stars were the stars for both teams, though, and Boston's are better and more cohesive.

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 12: Darius Garland #10 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Donovan Mitchell #45 talk during the second half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on December 12, 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell survived Orlando. Boston will be a different story. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

Donovan Mitchell vs. Jrue Holiday

Mitchell is an elite playoff scorer. His 27.9 points per game in the postseason are fourth all time for a career. In Cleveland, though, he has been wildly inconsistent. He has shot 45.3% from the field and 27% from 3-point range in 12 playoff games for the Cavaliers. That level of inefficiency will not beat Boston.

Mitchell will have his hands full against the Celtics. Boston mainly defended Mitchell with Holiday, a five-time All-Defensive selection, and some of Brown's length. While Mitchell scored well against both during the regular season — 27 points on 11-for-17 shooting in 19 minutes, per the NBA's tracking data — he did not elevate Cleveland's offense elsewhere. He committed three turnovers for his five assists opposite Holiday and Brown, and the Cavaliers scored only 101.6 points per 100 possessions in those minutes.

This is how the Knicks dismantled the Cavs in last year's playoffs. They welcomed Mitchell's shot — 23 per game in Cleveland's four losses — and trusted that his penchant for "hero ball" would not raise the level of everyone around him. Similarly, Mitchell's assist (4.3)-to-turnover (3.8) ratio was far from productive against Orlando in the first round, especially for someone who is using a third of his team's possessions.

It should concern Cleveland that Mitchell scored 60 points on better than 50% shooting in his two appearances against Boston this season, and the Cavs were beaten soundly both times. He had nine assists and six turnovers. Holiday will make Mitchell work for his points at the expense of his teammates.

On the other end, Holiday cannot let Mitchell hide. Mitchell is a target on defense and has been since his Utah days. Holiday can be passive, but he should force Mitchell into action, serving as a playmaker and screener, which will be more effective if he connects on better than 33% of his playoff 3s. A pick-and-pop only succeeds if the roll man is a threat. Make Mitchell work on both ends, and Cleveland is in trouble.

The rebound battle

Without Porziņģis, who grabbed more than 20% of available defensive rebounds against Cleveland this season, the Celtics' size opposite the Cavaliers could become a factor. Horford is an excellent rebounder, as are Tatum and Boston's guards, but none of them is a 7-3 dude who can reach over Cleveland's trees.

For all their size, the Cavaliers are an average rebounding team, especially on the offensive end, where they grabbed 27.4% of available boards, which ranked 22nd in the league this season. In their three games, Boston out-rebounded Cleveland each time and by a total of 142-116 (39-23 on the offensive glass). While Mobley missed two of those games, Allen's ribs remain a health question for this series.

The Celtics are likely to win the 3-point battle. They shot 38.8% on 42.5 3-point attempts per game against Miami in the opening round. Cleveland shot 36.7% on 36.8 attempts against Orlando. That discrepancy was roughly the same during the regular season. So, the Cavs have to find extra possessions somewhere. What good is having Allen and Mobley if they cannot out-rebound the Porziņģis-less Celtics?

Celtics in 5

As good as Cleveland's defense was this season, Boston's was better, and the offensive efficiency margins lean too heavily in the Celtics' favor. Likewise, the Celtics have a plethora of options to defend Mitchell, the catalyst of Cleveland's offense. Conversely, does Strus start on Tatum? Who guards Brown? Or White? Any one of them can carry Boston's offense against a porous perimeter defense.

Boston Celtics (-1400)
Cleveland Cavaliers (+800)

Game 1: Tue., May 7 @ Boston (7 p.m., TNT)
Game 2: Thu, May 9 @ Boston (7 p.m., ESPN)
Game 3: Sat., May 11 @ Cleveland (8:30 p.m., ABC)
Game 4: Mon., May 13 @ Cleveland (7 p.m., TNT)
*Game 5: Wed., May 15 @ Boston (TBD)
*Game 6: Fri., May 17 @ Cleveland (TBD)
*Game 7: Sun., May 19 @ Boston (TBD)

*if necessary