We’re heading into our first revenge game of the season. Last time the Boston Celtics faced off against the Cleveland Cavaliers, thing’s didn’t go to plan. Hopefully, some lessons have been learned, some adjustments made, and the Celtics come into Wednesday evening's game looking to even the score and tie the season series up at 1-1.
This year’s Cavaliers team is no joke, though. Donovan Mitchell has helped take them to new heights, giving them the go-to bucket-getter they were missing during the final years of their rebuilding. Now, with Evan Mobley in his second year, the impressive Jarrett Allen, the ever-improving Darius Garland, and All-Star Mitchell, the Cavaliers are a serious threat that Boston will need to take seriously if they want to even the score.
Of course, this is the Celtics we’re talking about. The same team that is coming off the back of an NBA Finals run. The same team that boasts two of the best wings the NBA has to offer. And the same team that is littered with deep playoff experience and elite individual accolades. The Celtics have pedigree now.
With all of that being said, Boston will need to have their wits about them if they want to settle the score. Here are three thing’s I’ll be looking out for once the game tips off on Wednesday, November 2.
Dealing with Cleveland’s double-big lineup
If Robert Williams was healthy, dealing with the Cavaliers' double-big lineup of Mobley and Allen wouldn’t seem like such a gargantuan task, but he’s not, so it does. Cleveland does a fantastic job of putting their bigs in a position to space the floor, either via their shooting or their lob threat.
What we’ve seen thus far in the early season, is J. B. Bickerstaff likes to run sets that get Mobley situated in the corner, with Allen rolling to the rim. Because, if you have a seven-foot unicorn posted in the corner, one of the opposing bigs has to stick with him, removing a body from the paint and creating an easier lane for a guard or wing to penetrate. The same can be said about Allen’s lob threat. A defender isn’t likely to help off a guy that can simply leap up to snatch passes out of the air and hammer them home for easy buckets.
So, will we see Mazzulla go with a double-big lineup of his own, with Al Horford occupying the 4 and Luke Kornet manning the middle? Or will Mazzulla stick to his guns of having multiple ball handlers on the court and attacking a tempo? Both options come with their own lists of pros and cons, and both can be viable ways to approach this game.
One thing’s for sure though, against the Washington Wizards, we saw the Celtics move away from their drop-heavy defense, and the results spoke for themselves, so hopefully, Boston continues to operate in a switcher system that allows them to pressure opposing offenses throughout a possession. After all, it was that intense ‘switch everything’ scheme that saw the Celtics rank as the NBA’s best defense last season, so there’s plenty of sample size to draw your conclusions from.
Utilizing Grant Williams
In the last meeting between the Celtics and Cavaliers, Boston’s very own crime-fighting superhero was suspended, and the rotation certainly felt his absence. Sure, Williams can let his emotions get the best of him at times, but the fact is, there aren’t many bench players as defensively versatile as him around the league.
Capable of switching up and down, Williams can provide a steadying force on the perimeter, and is not scared of being the guy to absorb the body blows when matched up with a bigger, stronger opponent. Against a Cavaliers’ team that has no issues leaning into their size advantage, Williams could provide a significant difference-maker on the defensive end.
Furthermore, Williams will give Boston an additional boost in spacing, and attacking close-outs. After all, the Tennessee native is shooting 66.7% from deep on 3 attempts per game, while also flashing an improved off-the-dribble game, meaning he’s one of the last people a defense is going to willingly leave in the corner when helping off to tag a roller to provide weak side coverage.
I’m not saying Williams will be the defining factor against the Cavaliers, but I am saying his presence will be felt, and that’s an impact that wasn’t available to Boston last time these two teams faced off against each other.
Taking what the game gives you
“I love three-pointers. I like math...I like open threes, I like space, and I think it’s a huge strength of our team,” Joe Mazzulla told the media after Boston’s offensive clinic in their October 30 victory over the Washington Wizards.
Well, Joe, I like open threes as much as the next person, but the fact remains that sometimes the Celtics can get a little too comfortable firing away from deep. Sure, when shots are falling and the ball is pinging side-to-side and finding the open man, you take your opportunities. But, there needs to be some sort of flexibility in the approach when things stop going your way.
Again, I’m not saying Boston’s offense has been awful — they rank 5th in the league in offensive rating (I know, small sample size) and have shown an ability to generate solid scoring opportunities based off of their drive-and-kick game.
Yet, you can’t be afraid to admit when it’s not your night from deep. If you’re having a cold stretch, don’t try and shoot your way out of it...take that thing to the hole and start punching some easy buckets to regain some rhythm and momentum. Once you’ve seen a couple of easy ones fall around the rim, by all means, take a couple of threes and see if the lid has been lifted.
Understanding that the game will dictate your offense to a certain degree is a key component of an elite team and something we saw from the Celtics in the latter part of last season and through most of the playoffs. Of course, with two behemoths manning the middle, shooting more treys is the more desirable option, however, that’s what Cleveland wants — to keep you out of the paint.
Hopefully, there won’t be a shooting slump in Wednesday’s matchup, at least not for the Celtics anyway, but if there is, getting downhill to the rim is always a good remedy that will ensure you don’t blow a lead or fall behind to the extent that hail marys are your only way back into the game.
Usually, I would say that at this early juncture of the season, it’s not about winning or losing, but rather building championship habits, figuring out rotations, and working on your playbook for later in the year. Not today, though.
The Cavaliers are a genuine threat in the East, and the last thing you want is to let them beat you twice in two weeks, gain some confidence, and earn a slight mental advantage over you. No, a championship isn’t going to be won or lost in the first week of November, but the seeds can sure start to be sown. A victory tonight would ensure Boston remains on an even playing field with a legitimate conference contender, and that in itself should be more than enough reason for the Celtics to come into this game fired up and looking for revenge.
After all, this is predominantly the same core that didn’t drop back-to-back games in the playoffs until that final stretch in the finals against the Warriors — and that’s something the team needs to pride themselves on.