June 22, 2024

Looking Ahead to Celtics-Cavs Miniseries

After being off for the last three days, the Boston Celtics are back in action Tuesday night to host a two-game miniseries with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

J.B. Bickerstaff reportedly joins Cavaliers coaching staff

The Cavs are currently tied for the East’s seventh-best record at 13-10, though they have been heating up of late wins in nine of their last 13 outings. The Celtics, meanwhile, remain atop the conference at 16-5, including a perfect 10-0 record at TD Garden.

To preview the upcoming pair of games, we’re joined by Matt Gold of Cavs.com to get some perspective from Cleveland’s vantage point…

1) The Cavs and Celtics were the top two teams in the league in terms of defensive rating last season. Both remain in the top 10 this season. What has worked so far on that side of the ball?

Taylor Snow, Celtics.com: Despite the offseason subtractions of a former Defensive Player of the Year in Marcus Smart, a versatile, vocal defender in Grant Williams, and an interior anchor in Rob Williams, the Celtics haven’t lost a step on the defensive end. In fact, their defensive rating is slightly better this season (109.0) than it was last season (110.6). Their continued success is largely thanks to their two main offseason additions – Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis – who both bring unique defensive skill sets to the table.

Holiday has been Boston’s most impressive defender thus far with his willingness to guard any position at any scoring level. He and All-Defensive guard Derrick White are forming arguably the best defensive backcourt in the league. Then on the interior, the C’s have their new 7-foot-3 big man protecting the rim. Porzingis has been a strong shot-blocker (1.6 blocks per game) and his presence alone makes opponents think twice before driving into the paint.

We also have to credit Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum for emphasizing a defensive mindset from the start of training camp. It helps set an example when your star scorers are also willing to put in work on the other end.

Matt Gold, Cavs.com: The Wine & Gold’s top-ranked defense the last year-plus has always relied and depended on the two staring big men – Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. Both are exceptional rim protectors with the versatility to switch out onto guards and wing players on the perimeter. They both also contest double-digits shots per game (Mobley: 11.8, sixth in the league; Allen 9.9, 14th in the league).

Isaac Okoro returning to the lineup in late November has helped the defensive system as well. Okoro is known for his defense and takes on the challenge of guarding the opposing team’s number one option on a nightly basis. “He’s got the ability to shut guys down and eliminate them from a game,” said Head Coach J.B. Bickerstaff after a recent win over the Hawks.

After that same game, Bickerstaff spoke highly of Darius Garland’s defense, saying “I thought Darius did a great job taking the challenge and forcing him into tough situations.” Garland was the primary defender on Trae Young, as Young finished the game on 3-14 shooting for 13 points. The full team’s buy-in leads to success on defense.

2) Cleveland (Max Strus & Georges Niang) and Boston (Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday) both added two key pieces in the offseason. How have those two affected your respective team this season?

Gold: The duo of Strus and Niang have been just what the Cavaliers have needed in the 2023-24 season.

Strus’ ability to take and shoot three-pointers has been a welcomed addition, as he is taking 7.8 and making 2.9 per game, good for a percentage of 37.8 – all are career highs. His playmaking ability has shone through, too, handing out over four assists per game, something that has helped with the Cavs guards all missing time this season.

Niang is really starting to find his footing in Cleveland after shooting 30 percent from deep through the first 12 games. He has scored in double figures in eight of the last ten games, including a season-high 13 against the Lakers and some big triples against the Magic and Heat to help put those games away.

Snow: We already touched on Porzingis and Holiday’s added defensive impact, but that’s only a small part of why they’ve fit in so well.

KP has brought a new dimension to Boston’s offense, giving the team a third high-volume scorer to take some pressure off the Jays. Whether he’s shooting threes, rolling to the basket, or operating in the post, there seems to be no limitation in his scoring arsenal. Plus, his laid-back, humorous personality has made him into a beloved member of the locker room already, and he hasn’t stopped smiling since he arrived.

Holiday has also been a key veteran addition to the locker room, having earned loads of respect from this Celtics group over the years. On top of his elite defense, he’s also been a jack-of-all-trades on offense, filling just about any role that’s needed. Although his scoring is down, he’s been Boston’s leading assister and its second-leading rebounder behind Tatum.

3) Last season, all four games between the Cavs and Celtics were decided by single digits (with three of them going to overtime). Do you anticipate that trend of close games continuing this season? 

Gold: In short, the answer is yes. Both teams have elite defenses and talented backcourts.

That answer could be a bit different – on Tuesday night especially – as the Cavs are getting the whole roster healthy and playing together again. The schedule does Cleveland no favors either, playing the second night of a back-to-back after playing in Orlando on Monday night. The Cavs have had a tough schedule in the opening quarter of the season, and the Celtics may be the best team they have faced yet. Positive results in Boston, be it wins or close losses, could do a world of good for this team heading into the winter.

Snow: Maybe not to the degree of having three more overtime duels, but yes, these two defensive-minded teams should match up well again.

Last season’s battles were dominated by Donovan Mitchell, who scored 40-plus points in three out of four games. If Holiday’s defense can help buck that trend, then Boston, which went 1-3 in the season series, should be in better shape this time around.

The Celtics should have an advantage in Tuesday’s matchup, as they’ll be fresh off three days of rest compared to the Cavs, who’ll be playing on the second night of a back-to-back after losing to Orlando Monday night.

4) The Cavs have bounced back nicely from a 4-6 start, winning nine of their last 13. What team/individual trends started to shift in a positive direction around the midway mark of November?

Gold: We mentioned it at the start, but the main piece has been the defense. Through the first ten games, the Cavs were giving up 113.9PPG and allowing teams to shoot 39.1 percent from three. Over the next 12 games, those numbers have dipped to 107.8PPG and 33.6 3PT%. Orlando made just two three-pointers in Cleveland last Wednesday night.

Donovan Mitchell has broken out of a mini-slump he was in, rebounding with five-straight games of 20-plus points, including one with 35 and one with 40.

5) Jayson Tatum is shooting a career-high in field-goal percentage. How has he become so efficient from the floor? 

Snow: Tatum has consistently shot 45-46 percent from the field throughout his career. This season, however, he’s seen that number jump to 49.6 percent. While his 3-point percentage hasn’t gone up much, his efficiency from 2-point range has. He’s shooting 60.8 percent from inside the arc, a massive increase from his previous career average of 50.9 percent.

JT’s biggest improvement has been his isolation scoring. He’s seen his iso efficiency climb from 34.9 percent last season to 46.6 percent this season, and he’s scoring 1.12 points per isolation possession. He’s also improved his post-up game, which he’s been working on consistently with new assistant coach Sam Cassell.

6) Tristan Thompson brought a lot of charisma into Boston’s locker room during his one-season pitstop there a few years ago. What has stood out about his leadership in his return to Cavs this season, and how has his impact been felt beyond the numbers?

Gold: Tristan has brought exactly that back to Cleveland. His minutes have not been super high, but they have been impactful. He scored four points, grabbed four rebounds, and handed out four assists in just eight minutes of work in the fourth quarter to help grab the win over Toronto two weeks ago. In a win at Philly, J.B. Bickerstaff called on him to guard Joel Embiid with the game on the line at the end of regulation – and got a stop to send things to overtime.

He is about as vocal as you can be, both in practice and in games. He has talked to Darius Garland during games and has added some extra toughness and grittiness to the frontcourt rotation. Thompson is always going to provide a spark to the Wine & Gold when his number is called, and Bickerstaff is not afraid to call on the veteran when one is needed.

7) For the Celtics, is there a sense of a missed opportunity or disappointment in not making the In-Season Tournament semi-finals/ final? How can Boston use missing out on the NBA Cup the rest of the season?   

Snow: There was certainly some level of disappointment after the IST quarterfinals loss at Indiana. Both Brown and Tatum expressed how badly they wanted to go to Las Vegas and Kristaps Porzingis was devastated that he had to miss that game due to a calf strain. They’d hoped to be the first to raise that trophy, but it just wasn’t meant to be.

There was some silver lining that came out of the elimination, however. For one, it freed up a ton of rest time, enabling the team to have six out of its next seven days off. Also, losing in a highly competitive setting could act as a vital learning experience, which could fuel the team in the playoffs. Plus, seeing the archrival Lakers hoist that trophy might add a little more fuel to the fire.

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