7:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Celtics -5, Over/Under: 219.5
A potential playoff preview is on tap tonight in the Northeast, where the much-improved Cleveland Cavaliers square off with reigning Eastern Champions, the Boston Celtics in this primetime showdown from TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. Over the course of the last three seasons, you’d be hard-pressed to find a franchise that has improved as much as the Cavaliers (39-25, 4th in Eastern Conference), who could really serve as the model for many struggling teams looking to lift themselves out of the proverbial doldrums. After winning fewer than twenty-five games in each of the three campaigns following LeBron James’ second exit from Northern Ohio, Cleveland got down to the business of rebuilding themselves in a proper manner. First, they confirmed J.B. Bickerstaff as their Head Coach after he took over for the ousted John Beilein for the final eleven games before the 20109-2020 season was suspended due to the pandemic (they were not invited to participate in the bubble). Going 22-50 in his first full year on the job, Bickerstaff and (General Manager) Koby Altman were rewarded in the Draft Lottery with the second overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, which they used to select (versatile big man) Evan Mobley, teaming him with (defensive stalwart) Jarrett Allen to create one of the most dynamic frontcourts in the Association. As a result, the Cavs improved by TWENTY-TWO games, which was good enough to participate in the play-in tournament, where their youth ultimately betrayed them in defeat. Rather than sit on their hands satisfied with their progress, the club was one of the most active during the offseason, acquiring the services of (All-Star Guard) Donovan Mitchell, which is looking more and more like a coup with each passing performance. It was no secret that the 26-year-old wanted out of Utah, and while he was linked with the Knicks for months it was in fact the Cavaliers that swooped in to pay the heavy price, including three players and five first round picks. So, how has Mitchell (pictured above) repaid them, you ask? Well, we doubt that anyone in Cleveland is feeling any sense of buyer’s remorse at the moment, as the four-time All-Star has been exactly what the team needed: a prolific scorer in the backcourt who could provide some sorely needed balance to the attack. Simply put, Mitchell has been a hit in the ‘Land, posting career-highs in several categories, including points (27.2) three-point percentage (38.9%), and steals (1.5). Paired alongside a similar profile in (fellow Guard) Darius Garland, and Bickerstaff has one of the highest-scoring backcourts in the NBA, with the dynamic duo combining for 49.1 points, 12.7 assists, and 2.8 steals per game. With that said, the identity of this group remains rooted on the defensive end of the hardwood, where they’ve been the league’s best for much of the campaign; the Cavs rank first in points allowed (106.5), sixth in opponents field goal percentage (46.6%), fourth in opponents two-point percentage (52.2%), and third in assists permitted (22.9). Furthermore, they don’t foul much, conceding the fifth-fewest free-throw attempts per game (22.0), while also relinquishing the fewest three-point attempts to boot (30.8), which is an indication of their perimeter defenders enjoying the freedom to apply pressure at will thanks to the human wall behind them that is Mobley and Allen. Of course, playing at the slowest pace in the game (95.5 possessions per 48 minutes), works in their favor too. When we last saw them, the Cavaliers won their first game in three tries after the All-Star Break, blowing out the Raptors in a 118-93 drubbing at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse last Sunday. This one was never close, folks, as the hosts shot a blistering 52.4% from the field, including 18-of-36 from beyond the arc, where they outscored the visiting side by a whopping twenty-seven points, while dishing out thirty-one assists in comparison to committing thirteen turnovers. Mitchell led the way with thirty-five points on 13-of-21 shooting (61.9%) and an insane 8-of-12 from downtown (66.7%), while Allen added a double-double with twenty-three points and eleven rebounds, with Mobley and Garland chipping in with eighteen points apiece. Defensively, Bickerstaff’s troops relegated Toronto to a miserable 38.7% shooting, with just nineteen assists opposed to fourteen turnovers. Looking to tonight’s trip to Beantown, the Cavs have taken each of the previous two meetings this season, the first being a 132-123 shootout back in late October before narrowly besting them in a 114-113 thriller five days later, both of which were decided in overtime. Mitchell starred in both affairs, showing out with forty-one points in the former, before adding another twenty-five including the game-winner in the latter. Over the course of his career, he has averaged 27.5 points per game on 44.7% shooting, including 37.2% from three, with 3.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 1.0 steal in twelve encounters with the Celtics. From a betting perspective, the Cavaliers have covered the spread in five consecutive games following a win of more than ten points, though are just 1-5 against the spread over their last six outings playing on at least days rest, which is the case tonight. Furthermore, they are just 1-4 against the spread in their last five games overall regardless of the venue. On the injury front, Cleveland is the rare team that is completely healthy at this stage of the campaign, which should benefit them as they look to keep climbing up the proverbial ladder in the Eastern Conference. Coming into this contest, they sit two games behind the Sixers for third place, with seven of their next eleven games coming against Eastern opposition in the playoff field, including their fourth and final tryst with Boston this weekend.
Meanwhile, the more things change and the more they seem to stay the same for the Celtics (44-18, 2nd in Eastern Conference), who with twenty games remaining in the regular season lead the NBA with forty-four victories. Of course, that’s technically only good for second place in the East thanks to the torrid Bucks, who on the strength of fourteen consecutive victories have since leapfrogged them at 43-17, owning a miniscule percentage lead. However, that hasn’t fazed Boston, who have won nine of their last twelve outings despite rarely enjoying a full complement of players in their rotation. Indeed, injuries have been an ongoing theme for a team that has been without many key pieces for much of the season, including the likes of (high-scoring Guard) Jaylen Brown, (reigning Defensive Player of the Year) Marcus Smart, (shot blocker extraordinaire) Robert Williams, (veteran big man) Al Horford, and (offseason acquisitions) Malcolm Brogdon and Danilo Gallinari, who altogether have missed a combined 150 games thus far. Oh, and have we failed to mention that the man credited for their second-half turnaround last season, (former Head Coach) Ime Udoka was unceremoniously relieved of his duties following an offseason scandal? Like we said, nothing seems to rattle these Celtics, and there are two reasons why that is the case: the first is the leadership of (interim Head Coach) Joe Mazzulla, and the second is sensational play of (All-Star Forward) Jayson Tatum. Serving as Udoka’s chief lieutenant last season, the identity of this group hasn’t changed one bit under Mazzulla, as Boston has remained one of the best defensive teams in the Association; with three quarters of the schedule in the books, they rank eighth in points allowed (112.0) and opponents field goal percentage (46.7%), sixth in defensive rating (112.2), first in defensive rebounding percentage (79.0%), and third free-throw/field goals attempted ratio (.183). With that said, they have been a much better side offensively than they were under the stewardship of his predecessor; the C’s ranked twelfth in scoring (111.8), fifteenth in field goal percentage (46.6%), fourteenth in both three-point percentage (35.6%) and assists (24.8), and thirteenth in turnovers (13.6) last season, only to rise to fourth (117.7), fourteenth (47.5%), eighth (37.7%), seventh (26.3), and seventh (13.5) in those respective categories thus far. Now, we don’t necessarily know what the franchise has planned in regard to Mazzulla long-term, but from what we’ve seen thus far from the 34-year-old, we feel that he’s absolutely earned the full-time job. Of course, having Tatum (pictured above) doesn’t hurt either, for in a campaign in which so many players have been in and out of the lineup, the newly crowned All-Star Game MVP has been the lone constant. Since being drafted third overall back in 2017, there hasn’t been a player that has evolved as much as the 24-year-old, who continues to ascend higher and higher with each passing season. From bringing more balance to his offensive repertoire, to becoming a better facilitator and defender, Tatum has really become a complete player in a campaign in which he has posted career-highs in a slew of categories, including scoring (30.1), two-point percentage (54.4%), free-throws made (7.2) and attempted (8.4), rebounds (8.7), and assists (4.7). With that being said, we wonder if he is starting to show some signs of fatigue, for his last few outings have NOT been up to his typically lofty standard; in an entertaining 110-107 victory at Philadelphia last Saturday night, he was held to just eighteen points on 7-of-17 shooting (41.2%) with nearly as many turnovers (5) as assists, before slumping to only fourteen points on 6-of-18 shooting (33.3%), including 1-of-9 from downtown (11.1%) in Monday night’s 109-94 defeat at the Knicks. The visitors dug themselves into an early hole in that one, offering a mere fifteen points on 7-of-21 shooting (33.3%) and 1-of-12 from three (8.3%) in a first quarter in which they were outscored by twelve points. Though they would find their rhythm over the following three periods, it wouldn’t be enough for the visiting side, who were really worked over at the free-throw line, where New York edged them 23-11. However, there were some positives to be found even in defeat, as Brogdon led the wat with a strong showing off the bench, consisting of twenty-two points on 10-of-16 shooting (62.5%), while Smart added nineteen points on 7-of-15 shooting (46.7%, four rebounds, and a pair of assists. Looking to tonight visit from the Cavaliers, the Celtics will be looking to beat them for the first time this season after each of those aforementioned encounters saw them come up just short in overtime. So, what’s the problem for Boston in this matchup, you ask? Well, in all honesty, Cleveland plays a very similar brand of basketball, with the requisite size, length, and defensive prowess to pose problems in the halfcourt. Tatum & Co have shot just 32.3% from beyond the arc in those matchups, while committing an average of 16.5 turnovers, which is the second-most they’ve posted against any single opponent this season. In eighteen career regular season meetings with the Cavs, Tatum has averaged 21.6 points on 44.4% shooting from the floor, including 33.3% from long-range, with 6.7 rebounds, and 2.9 assists, while dropping twenty-six and thirty-two points respectively in the two previous affairs last Fall. From a betting perspective, the Celtics have fared well TD Garden of late, covering the spread in four consecutive games, while putting forth a 5-1 record against the spread over their past six outings versus opponents with winning records (straight-up). On the injury front, the aforementioned Brown is healthy but missed that trip to Madison Square Garden on Monday due to a personal issue and is listed as questionable for this matchup, while Gallinari is expected to miss the rest of the campaign as he continues to rehab from a torn ACL suffered last September.