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

Before it became clear that 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, AthleticismCeltics writers Jay King and Jared Weiss explained it in a little more depth after another Donovan Mitchell performance shut out the Magic on Sunday.

What makes the Cavs dangerous?

King: The Cavaliers have had a strange season. They ran into potential problems early in the year when Darius Garland and Evan Mobley both missed extended time, but surged forward without both starters. From mid-December until the All-Star break, Cleveland played some of the best basketball in the league, going 23-5 with a dominant net rating of plus-11.5. Garland and Mobley returned before that run ended, but the Cavaliers discovered a winning formula before they did. Mitchell ran the show, Jarrett Allen kept it inside and their teammates spaced the court and shot.

Since then, things haven’t gone so well. The Cavaliers finished the regular season on a 12-17 spiral with a 20th-ranked offense and a 25th-ranked defense during that stretch. It didn’t help that Mitchell missed many of those games, but Cleveland addressed other issues, including the imperfect fit between its two starting bigs, Mobley and Allen. The midseason stretch appears to be proof that the Cavaliers can perform at a high level when they are at their best, but, after struggling mightily to score against Orlando, what are the chances 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, because Orlando is tough and talented, even if flawed offensively. Cleveland had to deserve it. And they did it with Allen missing the final three games of the series with a rib injury and former Celtics Marcus Morris and Tristan Thompson in the rotation. Winning with this bench in 2024 is an achievement in itself.

Maybe it’s Cleveland’s defensive depth that’s hurting them. Allen was unable to return for Game 7, so will he be ready for Game 1 48 hours later? Everyone in their bench rotation right now is someone Boston can target easily. How will Cleveland field good defensive units if Allen is out, especially with Celtics killer Dean Wade also out with a sprained right knee? Mobley seemed allergic to contact on screens, so Boston’s defensive staff should be able to stay on Mitchell and Garland. It appears Cleveland is too exhausted to handle Boston’s offensive versatility, even without Porziņģis.

How are the Celtics handling the loss of Kristaps Porziņģis?

King: The absence of Porziņģis will of course hurt the Celtics, but this could be an OK series without him. Al Horford can space the Cavaliers big men and make it difficult for them to protect the rim. (A healthy Porziņģis could too, but he doesn’t spend as much time scouting the perimeter as Horford.) As gifted as Mobley and Allen are defensively, Cleveland has some weaknesses on that side of the court, most notably a lack of size in the rear area. This 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 in backup minutes, although Joe Mazzulla could also consider Xavier Tillman at that spot. I could be crazy, but I also don’t think a lineup with Tatum at center is completely out of the question. While this would put the Celtics at a size disadvantage, Allen would likely struggle to keep pace with perimeter players alone.

Weiss: Especially if Allen plays, Kornet seems like the likely choice. Boston has carried him as a backup center in their previous matchups, and his length is key to countering Cleveland’s aerial threat. Cleveland could hurt Boston on the glass, so they’ll need his length just to make sure they finish possessions well. Since Cleveland has small guards, Boston’s matchup chase at the post would be very effective. But will they be able to change Cleveland without Porziņģis? This will be difficult to achieve.

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 start by trying to limit the impact of their dynamic backcourt in Mitchell and Garland. Although our own Joe Vardon wrote a great story on Garland’s recent lack of aggressiveness, he can control a game with either his scoring or his playmaking. Mitchell has had one of the best seasons of any guard this season before getting injured after the All-Star break. Together, they represent a lot to deal with. They put a lot of pressure on a defense.

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

Weiss: Jrue Holiday over Garland looks to be a huge plus for Boston. Holiday’s ability to disrupt a player’s rhythm and structure him throughout a series is as good as it gets in the league. Since Jaylen Brown often seems to be guarding his friend Mitchell, White will spend much of his night chasing Max Strus. Cleveland can bother Boston with its running and rebounding rim (or Wade turns into Klay Thompson), but Boston fits Cleveland’s backcourt so well.

A bonus: Boston can switch and still maintain good matchups, while Horford will likely be more useful in containing Cleveland’s guards than Porziņģis would be. But if Garland and Mitchell can get to the paint and force Horford 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 let Wagner get to the free throw line before the Magic wing began its real attack. Paolo Banchero was also able to muscle him in to drive Mobley deep into the paint, then use fakes to put Mobley in the air for fouls.

It looked a lot like the kind of moves Tatum uses when given the same clearing opportunities. While much of Brown’s package wouldn’t work against Mobley, since the Cavs defender can eliminate a lot of those fadeaways and quick pull-ups, Tatum’s ability to weave his way through the paint and finish with a roll of the finger makes him ideal. no one for this match.

If Allen comes off the bench or at least plays injured, it will be easier for Boston to involve Mobley in pick-and-rolls and then pass him to Tatum. More importantly, getting Mobley close to the point of attack when Allen is not on the field gives Boston as much room to attack behind him. Mobley is usually 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 rank seventh in defensive efficiency, but will have some matchup problems in the second round. In their starting lineup, I expect Boston to try and go after Garland, who knows where to be but will be physically outmatched at 6-foot-1 and 192 pounds. Even White and Holiday will have a significant size advantage against him, not to mention Tatum and Brown if Garland gets stuck on them in switches.

The Celtics have had some success against Miami’s smaller defenders, including Tyler Herro, and can be deadly when they have a game to chase. Against Cleveland, Boston should have a few.

Who is the X factor?

King: White may be past the “X factor” stage at this point, but if he keeps his play up from the first round, I just don’t know what his opponents will do against the Celtics. He shot 47.7 percent from 3-point range while attempting nearly nine per game. He averaged 22.4 points per game with an efficient true shooting rate of 74.3 percent. And he did all this while putting on his usual elite defense. Tatum and Brown are tough enough to hold their own 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 true star than an X-factor at this point in 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 it all together without Porziņģis. It will be easy for Horford to make good decisions with the ball or run Boston’s defensive coverages. The real questions: Can he take advantage of the clean look Cleveland will give on the pick-and-pop? And can he defend above the rim to keep Allen and Mobley from diving all over Boston?

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

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