On Friday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers shipped off to TD Garden to take on the Boston Celtics. For those who may not remember, the Celtics are the defending champions of the Eastern Conference. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, were looking to show they belong in the same breath as the Eastern Conference elites as they try to make the playoffs for the first time without LeBron James since the 1997-98 season.
The Cavaliers were able to show grit and tenacity in a playoff environment
Well, to open things up, Cleveland certainly tried to make a statement. The Cavaliers were beating Boston to the tune of 22-9 at the midway mark of the first quarter. But, due to some questionable defense and a strong Celtics bench unit, Boston was able to climb back into things and was leading Cleveland 34-33 at the end of the first quarter.
After that, things turned into a shootout between both the Cavaliers and the Celtics. Unlike last season, Cleveland has stronger weapons to carry them on offense. Unfortunately, they don’t have Jayson Tatum, who finished the night with 30 points for Boston. It also doesn’t help that the Celtics blew things open as well, outscoring the Cavaliers 33-20 in the second quarter.
Thankfully, Cleveland was able to take a page out of what made them one of the league’s hottest teams last season. In the third quarter, the Cavaliers tightened up on the Celtics, defending the perimeter well and only allowing 24 points overall. Sure, Tatum still did a lot of damage, but, the rest of his teammates were unable to step up to meet him on either end of the floor. Donovan Mitchell and Caris LeVert were able to benefit most from Boston’s lax defense, combining for 22 of Cleveland’s 33 third-quarter points. Overall, Mitchell and LeVert combined for 82 points.
Cleveland can carry a lot of the positive momentum from this game on Sunday against the New York Knicks at home. It’ll be a good way to carry things into Wednesday’s follow-up game against Boston and if the Cavaliers are able to win again, could further embolden their claim at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Things to change, things to keep
This game from wire to wire felt playoff-worthy with both teams exchanging blows until the victor was left standing. With the Cavaliers and Celtics meeting again in a few days’ time at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, there will likely be adjustments from Cleveland’s J.B. Bickerstaff and Boston’s Joe Mazzulla to make it a somewhat different game.
Evan Mobley looked passive at times on offense, which is something you cannot have from arguably your most important player on the floor. Similarly to the game against the Orlando Magic, Mobley was more active within the offensive flow. But, if Cleveland wants to truly level up after a statement win, they need Mobley to start showing signs of growth on offense.
If Darius Garland remains unavailable, meanwhile, for the Cavaliers, then Bickerstaff should cut up, devour and regurgitate everything Mitchell and LeVert did right together. Empowering LeVert as a secondary offensive creator has unlocked a lot of things for him, especially when feeding off Mitchell’s gravity. Once LeVert gets rolling, it’s even harder for the Celtics, or any team, to stop Mitchell on offense as well.
When it comes to Isaac Okoro, meanwhile, it’s hard to figure out where he fits into things. Maybe it’s the lack of a ballhandler that’s comfortable alongside him. But, it’s clearly more than that at the end of the day. Okoro hasn’t connected on a single three-point attempt this season and, overall, is averaging 1.6 points on 25.6% shooting. Not only that, but Okoro has seemingly regressed a touch on defense as well.
Sure, defending Paolo Banchero and Jayson Tatum in back-to-back games is a tough assignment for anyone. But, when Okoro has struggled this much, it might be time to shake things up at the back end of the rotation.
The Cavaliers are starting to find offensive balance
When breaking down the shots Cleveland made against Boston, the Cavaliers are looking a tad more balanced. Within the arc, they scored on 7 midrange shots and 22 shots in the paint. Cleveland also connected on 16 of their three-point attempts as well. Finally, the Cavaliers converted on 26 of their 34 free throw attempts.
That’s an extremely balanced offensive effort on Cleveland’s part. When you combine that with one of the best overall defenses in the league, the Cavaliers appear to be hitting a new gear as they level up. Granted, it might be still too early into the season to truly confirm whether it’s a massive upswing for Cleveland. But, in a game like this against an elite two-way team like the Celtics, things are looking great for the Cavaliers.
Up next: The Cavaliers are home on Sunday night against the New York Knicks. Tipoff is at 6:00 PM ET.