Why Celtics Game 2 loss vs. Cavs is not the same as Game 2 vs. Heat

Tony Nguyen | Boston Celtics
May 10, 2024

After their dominant Game 1 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, it wasn’t far-fetched to expect the Boston Celtics to breeze by their second-round opponent after they largely dominated the Miami Heat in their first-round series. That idea came tumbling down in Game 2 on Thursday night unfortunately, as Boston got run off the court, suffering a blowout 118-94 defeat.

While the C’s were competitive in the first half, they completely unraveled in the second half, and lost their second straight Game 2 of the playoffs. In their previous series, Boston fell victim to a historically hot shooting night from Miami, and for a point in time, it seemed like the sky was falling.

As you may expect, fans are similarly concerned after this loss to the Cavaliers. And while the sky isn’t falling, this isn’t exactly the same set of circumstances as their previous Game 2 stinker. For the first time maybe all season, the Celtics have a legitimate challenge on their hands, and they are going to need to make some serious adjustments in order to bounce back in Game 3 and beyond.

Celtics need to punch back after disappointing Game 2 loss

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) and guard Jaylen Brown (7) react after a play against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first quarter during game two of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at TD Garden.
Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it is worth noting that there are some similarities between Boston’s two playoff losses so far this postseason. But using that as an excuse for the loss isn’t going to cut it. The good news when it comes to that frame of thought is that the Celtics responded in resounding fashion moving forward against the Heat, so hopefully they will come out with the same mentality in Game 3 against the Cavs.

In Game 2 against the Heat, the Celtics were subjected to a 23/43 three-point shooting performance in which they largely dared Miami to shoot threes. Boston brought this upon themselves, but it was clear this sort of shooting was not sustainable. Sure enough, the Heat came crashing back down to earth, thanks in part to much more concerted effort from the C’s on defense.

Game 2 against the Cavaliers was somewhat similar in the sense that they shot the lights out of TD Garden. Cleveland shot 54.7 percent from the floor and 46.4 percent from behind the arc, and their top six rotation players all shot above 50 percent individually. Again, Boston didn’t help themselves with a lackadaisical defensive effort, but assuming they ratchet up the pressure moving forward, these numbers will fall moving forward.

It didn’t help how the Celtics played one of their worst offensive games of the year on the other side of the ball. They shot just 41.3 percent from the floor and a hideous 22.9 percent from three, and again, these numbers are going to even out moving forward. Some nights, the shots just don’t fall, and it’s worth noting the C’s were generating quality looks for much of the night. If they shoot like they normally do from behind the arc, they would have at least been competitive in the second half.

You can never say never in the playoffs considering there are only a maximum of seven games that will be played in a series, but the shooting trends should favor the Celtics moving forward. Simply put, the Cavs aren’t going to shoot over 50 percent the rest of the way out, and the Celtics aren’t going to shoot 40 percent from the field and 20 percent from three the rest of the way out.

But banking on those changes simply isn’t enough, and there are a pair of big adjustments on both ends of the floor that need to be put into place in order to force those trends to come to fruition. Joe Mazzulla and company pushed the right buttons after losing Game 2 to the Heat, and he will have to do the same after this defeat.

Defensively, the Celtics have a legitimate problem they have to deal with in Donovan Mitchell. The superstar guard made an effort to get his teammates involved early in Game 2 before taking over down the stretch, and he was in total control of this game from the start. Boston has to seriously revise their game plan for defending him, because he was borderline unstoppable in the second half when the C’s were trying to start a rally.

There are two ways Boston can go about fixing this, and the good news is that both of these solutions should realistically solve this problem. The first, and probably more simple move, is to simply let Mitchell get his points, and focus on shutting down his teammates. This is precisely what they did in Game 1, and they made a mistake allowing guys like Evan Mobley and Caris LeVert to get hot early on Thursday night.

A different route they could take this is by shifting Jrue Holiday onto Mitchell as his primary defender. Holiday spent the most time defending Mitchell in this game, and in that time, he scored just two points. Conversely, when he went up against the likes of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Derrick White, not only was he scoring at will, but so was the rest of his team. Holiday has the physical strength and speed to stick with Mitchell at the perimeter and make his life far more difficult on his drives to the rim.

On the other side of the floor, the Celtics generally did a good job when it came to playing their brand of basketball, they just didn’t hit their shots. However, they can make some fixes, and similar to their series against the Heat, their biggest issue is that they do not want to attack the paint for whatever reason. The best quarter of this game for the C’s was the second quarter, and that was because they repeatedly found their way into the paint and were either hitting their shots or getting free throws.

It’s virtually the same situation as they found themselves in a series ago. Last series, the skilled interior defender was Bam Adebayo. This time around, it’s Evan Mobley for as long as Jarrett Allen is stuck on the sidelines with a rib injury. Aside from Mobley, no one can stop Tatum or Brown when they get to the paint.

Surprisingly, Tatum was the only guy who seemed to figure that out in this game. He again struggled with his efficiency from the field, shooting just 6/16, but he was constantly attacking the rim, which earned him 11 trips to the free throw line. When the threes aren’t falling (and they certainly were not falling in this one) this is what Boston needs to do to get themselves back on track.

This was a game where Boston sorely missed Kristaps Porzingis, but they still have more than enough talent to get past Cleveland in this series. They cannot take their opponent lightly, though, because as we just saw, they have the ability to blow them out of the water. The Celtics responded well against the Heat, but they can’t rest on their laurels moving forward. Game 3 is going to be their toughest challenge of the season, and if there was ever a time for them to prove they are different from past iterations of the Celtics, now would be that time.