1 key change Cavs must implement in Game 4 to take down Celtics

Tony Nguyen | Boston Celtics
May 14, 2024

Many considered the Cleveland Cavaliers a longshot heading into this Eastern Conference semifinal matchup with the Boston Celtics. According to point guard Darius Garland, regardless of how everyone else feels, the Cavs were looking to shock the world and eliminate the Celtics, the NBA’s best regular-season team.

Cleveland’s 118-94 Game 2 victory over Boston gave the Cavs a possible template for success against a versatile two-way force like the Celtics. This supposed template ultimately hinges on taking and (hopefully) making as many three-pointers as possible.

While it seems simple enough, Boston has given Cleveland a lot of breathing room on the perimeter, trying to prevent the Cavs from attacking downhill and creating pressure at the rim. That free real estate has led to Cleveland shooting more from the perimeter, but if the Cavs want to win Game 4 and tie up this series heading back to Boston, then they need to take even more against the Celtics.

The Cavs need to make it rain on the perimeter by going small

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) celebrates after a three-point basket against the Boston Celtics in the second quarter of game three of the second round of the 2024 NBA playoffs at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Although the solution seems simple enough, Cleveland’s problem is that they need someone other than Donovan Mitchell to connect on multiple three-point attempts.

Mitchell hit on 7 of his 12 three-point attempts in Game 3 while the rest of the team combined to shoot 5 of 24 from the perimeter. Max Strus accounted for 2 of those 5 makes, while Dean Wade, Darius Garland, and Caris LeVert each made a single three-pointer.

“I thought we did a good job of sharing and creating open (3s),” Cleveland head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “We just didn’t make as many as we needed to.”

Throughout the game — and especially in the third quarter — the Celtics continually blitzed the Cavs, which contributed to their three-point attempts not connecting. This blitz-heavy Boston attack forced Bickerstaff to go with a smaller lineup, with Evan Mobley playing center surrounded by the shooting prowess of Mitchell, Garland, LeVert, and Sam Merrill.

Through that smaller lineup, Cleveland found a spark. That spark opened up the floor, creating driving lanes for the Cavs to attack the basket or to force defenders to scramble all over the perimeter. It also allowed them to attack the Celtics’ big man, Al Horford, who turns 38 next month, on nearly every trip down the floor.

Due to all the spacing, Boston could not hide Horford anywhere defensively. Sure, Cleveland still lost by 13 and could only trim the opposing lead to 9 with that group. But that could be a weak link on defense for the Celtics since Horford is starting instead of Kristaps Porzingis, allowing Cleveland to go smaller earlier and carve up Boston on the interior.

“I thought it gave us space. It gave us a lot of shooting out there,” Bickerstaff said. “We were struggling to score offensively, so I thought we just needed some space and try to put as much shooting out there as we could. I thought it gave us a nice little boost, but I thought it ran out of steam a little bit.”

While the Cavs cannot play smaller all game long, they can do it in bursts to help keep the Celtics uneven on defense. Boston has already struggled to contain Mobley at times, and Cleveland’s star big man is even more lethal when surrounded by shooting.

The Cavs need to try anything and everything to avoid going down 3-1 to the Celtics heading back to Boston for Game 5. Perhaps playing smaller and making it rain from the perimeter will do the trick.