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Celtics vs Cavaliers Second Round Playoff Preview and Predictions

The Cavaliers defeated the Magic in Game 7 of the east quarterfinals on Sunday to advance to the second round, where they’ll meet the Celtics beginning with Game 1 at 7 p.m. on Tuesday in Boston.

Health looms large to begin the series with Kristaps Porziņģis’ status for the entirety of the second round up in the air following a Game 4 calf strain six days ago. Cavs center Jarrett Allen missed the final three games of the first round with a rib injury, Dean Wade (knee) sat out all seven games and remains out indefinitely. Donovan Mitchell played well through a nagging knee ailment in spurts, but it visibly bothered him again late in Game 6.

The Celtics beat Cleveland in 2-of-3 meetings decided by an average of 5.7 points. The first two games came over three December days in Boston with Evan Mobley out. Porziņģis edged out Max Strus 21-17 in the first while Darius Garland and Mitchell out-dueled Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown 55-50. Derrick White and Jrue Holiday added 28 points to reach 120. In Game 2, Brown and Tatum reached 49, Holiday and White combined for 29, while Garland and Mitchell combined for 50. Caris LeVert scored 26 off the bench, but Strus, Wade and Allen struggled.

Nearly three months later, with the top of the east clinched, the Celtics received 71 points from their top three scorers and built a 22-point fourth quarter lead with Mitchell out before Wade shot 7-for-7 in the fourth, including five threes, to come back and win. His put-back dunk became the game-winner before Tatum missed a mid-range jumper trailing by one at the buzzer. Those games followed a highly-contested 2023 series between the two teams, which Cleveland won by taking three games in overtime, including the infamous Grant Williams imma make both game.

The Cavaliers’ top-ranked defense, beating out Boston for No. 1, allowed them to scrap out those wins one year ago. Injuries in large part dropped their defense to seventh and their offense from eighth to 16th. Mitchell, Mobley and Garland all played fewer than 60 games. Tristan Thompson, who returned last summer to play some depth center minutes, received a 25-game drug suspension. Ty Jerome, who played two games after arriving alongside Strus and Georges Niang in a busy offseason, went down for the year with a severe ankle injury. Buyout addition Marcus Morris started for them in Game 6 on Friday with Allen out, their depth shallowing.

Mitchell’s 50 points in that close loss showed why he’s the most dangerous player who participated in that first round series, having a strong enough season to receive All-NBA consideration if he appeared in enough games. He and Garland battled inefficiency throughout 2023-24 though, Mitchell falling to 33% on pull-up threes into the playoffs after only managing 35% while taking the fourth-most per game in the NBA this season. Garland improved from deep into round one (41.9% 3PT) after finishing the regular season 44.6% from the field.

They become the Cavs’ chief vulnerability against the matchup-hunting Celtics. Opponents shot 47.5% when guarded by Mitchell and 50.6% going at Garland this year. Mitchell held his own against the Celtics in the two losses he played in (40.9%) while Garland’s defensive struggles (50.0%) continued, but Boston had the most success attacking Allen, taking 57 shots across the three games inside and converting 57.9%. Mobley’s defense became the equalizer, limiting the Celtics’ players to 38.9% shooting when he guarded them.

Mobley has long struggled against the Celtics offensively, though, a non-shooting four that Boston could stash a smaller defender on if Allen is available or take out with Al Horford. Mobley is a career 49.4% shooter against Boston (54.4% FG career), scoring 2.0 points per game fewer than his career average. He has shot 4-for-11 against Horford in their individual matchups, and through the first four games of round one, he fell to 46.0% FG.

As for Boston’s offensive players, Tatum struggled at 38.7% from the field while Brown managed 49.1%. They both finished 35% from three. Holiday thrived, shooting 59.3% (42.9% 3PT) and White converted 50% of his threes. Sam Hauser shot 7-for-10 from three. Al HorfordLuke Kornet and Payton Pritchard shot poorly from the field. Boston shot 45.8% FG, 39.0% 3PT and attempted 19.3 free throws per game, scoring 7.3 points per game fewer than their season average. Cleveland averaged 108.3 PPG, shooting 46.4% FG and 41.7% 3PT (12.3 FTA).

Other matchup notes… 

  • Boston posted a 100.7 defensive rating in round one while the Magic scored 107.0 points per 100 possessions against Cleveland. The Celtics ranked third among first round teams on offense. The Cavs finished 15th.
  • Allen averaged 14.3 PPG, 9.0 RPG and 3.3 APG on 59.4% shooting and became more of a passing hub against the Celtics during the regular season. Cleveland would miss him immensely if his absence carried over into round two.
  • In terms of the margins, the Celtics dominated the Cavaliers in turnover rate (12.1-13.8 TOV%), carved out a slight advantage on the offensive boards (28.7-27.4 OREB%), shot roughly the same number of free throws per game (20.2-20.4) and won the shot margin (90.2-87.2 FGA, 42.5-36.8 3PA).
  • Porziņģis averaged 21.0 PPG and 8.3 RPG on 42.2% shooting vs. Cleveland. Horford shot 25% from three, 46.7% from the field and averaged 5.3 PPG and 6.7 RPG. Allen shot 2-for-2 against him in their matchups.
  • Cleveland lost 12-of-19 to close the regular season after a nine game win streak between January and February.

Predictions

Bobby Manning: Celtics in 5

Assuming the Cavaliers’ health situation remains abysmal, including Mitchell playing through his ailments, it’s hard to imagine this series going any longer than five. That’s where it begins, with Allen questionable, Wade out and Cleveland again in line to rely on Okoro and Morris for starting level minutes. I gave Miami the benefit of the doubt with a six game prediction. Without more assurance the Cavs won’t deteriorate health-wise after seven games in the first round, I can’t give them the same, despite them playing the Celtics so tough and close in the past. These individual games will be closer than the Heat series. It’s hard to expect the series will be, but if Allen and Wade return, and Porzingis remains out, six games is definitely in play.

A. Sherrod Blakely: Celtics in 5 

The Cleveland Cavaliers will present the Boston Celtics with a more talented foe than their first-round opponent, the Miami Heat. But having come off a draining seven-game series against Orlando, coupled with a Celtics team that has many more top-shelf scoring options than the Magic, this will be another relatively quick series for the Celtics who should need no more than five games to move on to the Eastern Conference finals.

Josue Pavon: Celtics in 5 

The Cleveland Cavaliers will certainly have their hands full against the Celtics, and health will factor into this semifinal series, which would most likely swing into the Cavs’ favor while Jarrett Allen and Dean Wade’s respective statuses remain unknown between now and the end of this best-of-7.  Celtics’ Kristaps Porzingis will most likely not be making a return throughout the second round. So, having Allen and Wade back into the fold would benefit the Cavs greatly on both ends of the floor, especially offensively — where Cleveland needs scorers to step up alongside Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland. But limiting Boston’s offense will be a constant struggle. Even without Porzingis, as Al Horford’s outside touch spreads Cleveland thin, Derrick White’s extraordinary offense against the Heat carries over, and Boston’s All-NBA duo Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown dig-in to combat Mitchell’s steady attack.

Jimmy Toscano: Celtics in 5…maybe 6 

if Donovan Mitchell goes Dummy Mode twice. While I do believe the Cavs will pose a greater threat to the Celtics than the Heat could, it still comes down to lack of overall talent compared to Boston – even if Kristaps Porzingis misses the series. Cavs big man Allen will at the very least begin this series banged up, and could miss time after he didn’t suit up in Game 7 for Cleveland due to bruised ribs. That’s a huge loss for Cleveland who could have tried to exploit the size mismatch a bit there. Even if he does play, it sounds like a painful injury that will prevent him from being as physical. Darius Garland and Evan Mobley are players, but it will come down to Mitchell being able to drop 40 points a night. Cleveland does have that ridiculous 105-104 comeback win against the Celtics in March to use as some confidence, but again if Boston simply shows up and plays with a playoff mentality, their starting lineup should trounce Cleveland’s. This is all assuming Dean Wade doesn’t return and turn into Dwyane Wade again.

John Zannis: Celtics in 5

Why? Two words.

Marcus. Morris.

When a guy you plucked off the street from the buyout market is starting big games and/or playing meaningful minutes you know you’ve got problems. Granted the Cavs were without Jarrett Allen but when Morris is your next man up, it’s man overboard, this ship is going under.

Not convinced? Here’s two more words.

Tristan. Thompson. Also playing real minutes for this Cavs team. Sorry but I can’t take any team seriously with Morris and Thompson in the rotation.

Honestly, I don’t think it mattered much who the Celtics played in this round. Any prediction is solely based on how they play not the opponent. Not yet.

Oddly enough not having Kristaps Porzingis could be a blessing in disguise. The Celtics play with more pace when he’s not in the lineup which more often than not is a good thing. Boston was 43-and-10 during the season when they attempted 40 or more 3-pointers and 54-11 when they dished out 23 or more assists. Celtics run the Cavs off the court and cruise to what will probably be a much tougher Conference Finals matchup against the Knicks.

Bobby Manning

Boston Celtics beat reporter for CLNS Media and host of the Garden Report Celtics Post Game Show. NBA national columnist for Boston Sports Journal. Contributor to SB Nation's CelticsBlog. Host of the Dome Theory Sports and Culture Podcast on CLNS. Syracuse University 2020.

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