Both teams enter the contest 3-1 over their first four games, and both will be confident of walking away with the W. This isn’t the same Cavaliers team from last season — far from it. The addition of Donovan Mitchell has suddenly given Cleveland an All-Star backcourt to pair with their future All-Star frontcourt pairing of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. So, the Celtics will need to be at their best if they want to avoid losing two games on the bounce.
Don’t get me wrong. The Cavaliers are good, but the Celtics have all the necessary tools to be the superior team IF they can take care of business on both sides of the court. Here, are my 3 tickets to triumph heading into Friday night's game.
Figuring out the defense
To start the season, we’ve seen a significant change in how the Celtics are executing their defensive coverages. Playing the center in drop coverage almost exclusively, Boston is switching 1-through-4 with the big either dropping immediately upon screening actions or playing up-to-touch on the screener.
Dropping against Allen is fine, he’s a rim runner who thrives around the hoop, so containing his distance will surely be key. But, what if Al Horford, or whoever else is playing the 5 is switched onto Evan Mobley? Do you still drop against him, knowing he can drain threes and mid-range looks? Do you try and guard up? How does that affect the low-man defense? These are all questions the Celtics will need answers to.
Furthermore, you need to deal with the guard-to-guard actions Cleveland is going to throw at you, both on the wing, and via drag screens or wide sets around the top of the perimeter. Of course, Darius Garland has missed the last few games for the Cavaliers, and there’s no telling how many minutes he will play against Boston (if any), but Caris LeVert is a legitimate replacement who can still hurt your defense if they’re not locked in.
One specific play the Cavaliers like to run is a wide stagger screen for a shooter, who then ghost screens for the ball handler. Mobley is often the player who fills the corner after the stagger screen has taken place, forcing the defending big to guard against the cut or catch, thus dragging them out of the middle. The ball handler will then drag out his dribble across the perimeter to force an overload onto the strong side, before firing a swing pass into the weakside corner for an open shot — this is usually filled by the other guard: Garland, Mitchell, or LeVert. The shooter in this play is simply a decoy to get the defense to react and/or switch the action.
Cleveland’s playbook is deep and diverse, so communication and understanding defensive roles are going to be paramount to containing an explosive offense. Still, Boston’s defense was the best in the NBA last season, and the personnel hasn’t undergone too much of an overhaul, so if the Celtics recommit to the defensive end, without sacrificing too much of their offense, they should be fine here.
Finding balance in the frontcourt
Grant Williams’ suspension for this game is going to hit the Celtics hard. For all of his complaining to the referees, Williams has become an integral cog in Boston’s rotations, both offensively and defensively. Now, the Celtics will need to figure out a new rotation for their front court minutes' distribution.
This probably means we’re going to see some more Blake Griffin, and potentially get a closer look at Luke Kornet. But don’t be surprised if Sam Hauser is the beneficiary of Williams’ suspension — the sophomore sharpshooter can provide the three-point shooting Boston will be missing, and has proven capable of holding his own on the defensive end, even when opposing teams are targeting him, and looking to get him defending multiple actions.
Honestly, Williams’ suspension should give a couple of Boston’s deeper bench players a valuable opportunity to stake a claim for increased playing time, and luckily it's come early enough in the season that you don’t mind the additional experimentation.
Stick to the gameplan
Against the Bulls, Boston’s offense slowly devolved back into a single pick-and-roll possession. They took the zip out of the ball, stopped cutting, and allowed their pace to slowly grind to a halt. In other words, once their shots stopped falling, they stopped executing.
Regardless of how the teams defense looks throughout Friday’s game, the offense needs to remain fluid, because as we’ve seen since Opening Night, playing at this increased pace, with incredible ball movement and off-ball movement, is exactly what this Celtics roster needed in order to incorporate all of their attacking riches into a single scheme.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have both been feasting, Malcolm Brogdon appears to be the bench guard they’ve been missing, and the big men are finding clear lanes to the rim — not to mention all of the uncontested threes the Celtics have been generating, along with their ability to limit opponents' transition opportunities due to their consistent shot-making abilities.
And most importantly, don’t let one side of the ball (offense or defense) dictate the effort level and execution on the other. If you’re struggling to get stops, don’t change the approach on offense, and if shots aren’t falling, keep executing your defensive plan. This type of mentality is what got the Celtics to the NBA Finals last season, and it’s what’s (hopefully) going to carry them through this current season.
It’s not like Cleveland is the first big test of the Celtics season. In their first four games, Boston has played three Eastern Conference contenders: the Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat, and Chicago Bulls, winning two of those contests.
A lot was said after the Chicago loss, but in truth, it was just one game. We’ve seen this core bounce back from tough defeats on countless occasions, and regardless of if they bounce back tonight, their season still projects to be a bright one. However, defeating another Conference rival with hopes of competing in the playoffs would go a long way to reaffirming the Celtics' credentials as the top team in the East, and who wouldn’t enjoy that?