After a rare dud against the Knicks on Monday, the Celtics will look to bounce back when they host the Cavaliers on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
It won’t be easy, as Cleveland has gotten the best of Boston so far this season. The Cavaliers won, 132-123, in overtime, back in late October, then 114-13, again in overtime, five days later.
Cleveland can win the regular-season series with a victory Wednesday, and the Celtics can also even the series if they win this game and beat the Cavaliers again March 6.
There’s a pretty decent chance these teams will meet in the playoffs, and this game could end up having a playoff-like intensity if both teams play to their potential.
Here are three things to look for heading into Wednesday’s matchup:
Can anyone slow down Donovan Mitchell?
Donovan Mitchell dropped 41 in the first meeting between the teams and added 25 in the second to lead the Cavaliers to tight wins.
He’s scored 40 or more in two of his last six and 30 or more in four of his last eight to move into eighth in the NBA in scoring at 27.2 points per game.
EIGHT triples for Donovan Mitchell so far ☔️— NBA (@NBA) February 27, 2023
Still in the third on the NBA App!
Watch now ➡️ https://t.co/0rrSPxPfsy pic.twitter.com/nAtN86SaDf
Mitchell is a difficult matchup for any opponent, because he has supreme speed but is also a physical and tough-minded player. The Celtics have the personnel to guard him, and Marcus Smart has as good a chance as anyone to slow him down, but it won’t be easy.
He’s averaging 28.6 points and shooting 50.6 percent from the field and 41.8 percent from 3 in wins. In losses, those numbers dip to 24.6 points, 43.3 percent from the field and 34.5 percent from 3.
The Cavs are deep and talented all over, but if the Celtics can keep Mitchell in check, they’ll put themselves in an ideal spot.
Does the cold shooting continue?
Great teams have the ability to quickly put one disappointing game behind them and not let it turn into two or more.
The Celtics shot 9-of-42 (21.4 percent) from 3, and outside of Al Horford, they were 6-of-35 (17.1 percent). That likely won't happen again – at least it shouldn’t – but can the Celtics return to form against a team that allows the fewest points per game in the NBA (106.5)?
"I just didn't think it was our night."— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) February 28, 2023
Joe Mazzulla talks C's shooting struggles vs. the Knicks pic.twitter.com/Kro45hMYFk
The Cavaliers also allow the fewest 3-point attempts in the NBA (30.8) and the third-fewest makes (11.4).
They also allow the third-fewest points in the paint (46), in large part because of their elite rim protectors in Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. But, they’re 24th in opponent 3-point percentage (37).
So, when the Celtics get 3-point looks, they’ll have to be efficient and knock them down at a reasonably high clip. Ball movement and making the extra pass are always important, but they’ll be particularly critical in this game.
Does Al Horford have another classic night?
Horford has scored in double figures in four of the Celtics last five games and is playing some of his best basketball of the season.
Horford has taken exactly nine shots in each of those four games, and he’s hit either 4 or 5 of them each time. He doesn’t force anything and often saves his best moments for the end of a tight, back-and-forth battle like he did in Philadelphia on Saturday night.
AL HORFORD DOING AL HORFORD THINGS pic.twitter.com/rEmzN3jwKi— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) February 26, 2023
He’s key every night, but he’s especially important against a team like the Cavaliers. Horford has the ability to bring Mobley and Allen away from the basket and play on the perimeter on offense, then chase them around and bang down low on defense.
Horford’s spacing makes life difficult for other teams, and his versatility gives Jayson Tatum, Malcolm Brogdon and co. more room to operate at and near the rim.
The 76ers basically left him wide open, and Horford consistently made them pay. Do the Cavaliers have the ability to rotate and close out on those Horford 3’s?
Possibly, but it’ll be difficult. Teams are often forced to pick their poison, and Horford is frequently the beneficiary.
He has a chance for another big performance Wednesday night. Who knows? Maybe he’ll get wild and attempt double-digit shots for the first time in over a month.