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Four For Four: Four Points That Will Decide The Four Wins

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Well, the Cavs get their hand-picked second round opponent.

*tongue in cheek*

Being one of the eight remaining teams while the Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns, and Los Angeles Clippers all watch at home is a telling sign where the league is at. While superstars are important, it takes more than just the team with the most star power to be successful. In today’s salary cap era, the more you spend, the more restrictive it is in building out your roster. And in today’s game, it takes more sacrifice then ever for multiple stars to work and stars are finding out how hard that is.

A playoff series win always feels good no matter the opponent, what the circumstances are or how it happened.

A playoff series win is also a good reminder on how hard it is to win in this league especially coming off a rebuild.

It took the Minnesota Timberwolves 20 years to get to the second round post-Kevin Garnett; it took the Pacers 10 years after Paul George; it took the Thunder 8 years after Kevin Durant; and it took the Cavs 6 years after LeBron James.

Cavs fans have been lucky to have a generational talent born in their backyard to accelerate the rebuilds both times – it took three years to advance past the first round the first time, and one year to advance past the first round the second time.

It’s too early to give out “You’re Right” cards but Koby Altman must feel some vindication about the Donovan Mitchell trade after the first round. That performance is why you make that deal. Lauri Markkanen and Collin Sexton are not doing that.

But, instead of looking behind we’re able to look ahead. The JB Bickerstaff head coach decisions will have to wait another week or two as we have a second round series to play.

So, what must take place for the Cavs to pull off the upset?

Some things must go right but it’s within the realm of possibility for the Cavs to make this a competitive series. Only the Denver Nuggets, Orlando Magic and your Cavaliers have had a winning record against the Celtics the past two years. Yes, the Cavs did go 1-2 this year (two games were without Evan Mobley, and one game without Mitchell) but in the Core Four era, the Cavs have had success.

The Celtics have still be one of the best, if not the best, team this year so the Cavs will have to play more than just one or two complete games, or one complete half.

Can the Cavs shoot well enough?

Shooting was the big story in the first round series against the Magic and rightly so.

After the Cavs specifically targeted Max Strus and Georges Niang the past offseason to give them the needed shooting, it didn’t quite turn out like they hoped.

Niang’s offensive shooting woes couldn’t get him on the floor and his defense (or lack thereof) couldn’t keep him on the floor. He saw minutes in the four games but went 1-for-10 from three and was a -7. Ironically enough, following up on a stat we shared all year, the Cavs won both games Niang was a positive plus-minus, while they were 1-3 in the games he was a negative plus-minus.

By Game 5, he was out the rotation and Games 6 and 7, JB Bickerstaff was relying on buyout candidate Marcus Morris to give him the two-way looks he was hoping Niang could provide. The Cavs don’t win Game 5 without Morris’ performance but his overall 3-14 performance from three is why he was available on the buyout market.

Isaac Okoro, Niang, Caris LeVert, and Morris combined to make 13 three-pointers over 7 games and shoot a combined 22%. That won’t get it done.

Strus started 3-14 but finished 9-24 over the last three games from distance. The Cavs will need more of that.

Why is this all so important?

Because the Celtics aren’t the Magic, and they aren’t the Knicks. If anything, they’re closer to the LeBron era Warriors.

The Celtics were 1st in the league in 3PA during the regular season (42.5 3PA) and 2nd in three-point percentage (38.8%). Those numbers dipped only slightly in their gentleman’s sweep against the Miami Heat. They were 1st in three-point shot frequency at 43.7% of their overall shot attempts, ranking 1st in non-corner threes (33.8%). So, they get the ball up from deep.

The Cavs are coming off a series where the Cavs were outshot 30.9% to 28.7% to the team who attempted the second fewest amount of three-pointers during the regular season and were 24th in three-point attempts. 28.7% will get the Cavs swept in no time.

But there is hope, and hope the Cavs bounce back to the mean.

During the regular season, the Cavs were 8th in three-point attempts (36.8) and 15th in three-point percentage (36.7%). After the All-Star break, the Cavs dropped to 11th in three-point attempts (36.3 3PA) but rose to 7th in three-point percentage (37.9%). It’s not a stretch to say the Cavs were a borderline top-10 three-point shooting team.

So, to see the Cavs be 14th in three-point attempts and second last in three-point percentage in the first round of the playoffs was a bit uncharacteristic.

The team who shot better each game from three in the first round series is the team who won each game.

It's not realistic the Cavs will outshoot the Celtics but they’ll need to bounce back to the mean to have a chance.

How will Isaac Okoro, Max Strus and Evan Mobley hold-up in point of attack defense?

The Magic were an interesting matchup for the Cavs from the aspect of the Magic and Celtics were stylistically similar in their offenses revolving around two, lanky, versatile big wing scorers. While their shot profiles and how they operated were different, the head of the snake was the same.

Bickerstaff decided to stick his three best perimeter defenders, with rotating Morris, Niang and others, on Wagner and Banchero. And he decided to do this largely by singling them up.

In a strategy that frustrated some, ended up being just successful enough for the Cavs to pull it out. The Cavs decided not to double to get the ball out of Wagner or Banchero’s hands; they decided not to blitz pick-and-rolls to force quick decisions; and they decided against any additional pressure or disguised looks. Instead, they said Banchero and Wagner beat us.

According to NBA.com’s defensive matchup stats, Mobley logged 27+ minutes against Banchero. Mobley held Banchero to 32% shooting on 50 FGA, only 9 FTA and forced 9 turnovers.

Okoro logged 22+ minutes against Banchero. Okoro held Banchero to 37.5% shooting on 16 FGA and forced 3 turnovers.

Strus logged 46+ minutes against Wagner. Strus allowed Wagner to shoot 46.4% on 28 FGA and forced 2 turnovers.

Jarrett Allen’s health may dictate how matchups start. Bickerstaff went to Okoro in Allen’s place and may go to him again to put Okoro and Strus on Tatum and Brown. If/when Allen gets back, Mobley likely gets the start on Tatum and Strus on Brown.

Matchups matter, and if the Cavs can win or break even at some of these point-of-attack matchups, it will allow them to pay more attention to Celtic shooters which is really what drives this team.

Health is wealth

The healthier team may end up being the series winner.

Kristaps Porzingis looks to be out for most, if not all the series which is a huge loss. Al Horford isn’t what he was, and Luke Kornet and Xavier Tillman are good backup centers, but they don’t bring the two-way presence that Porzingis does.

Porzingis was shooting 38% from three which really allowed the Celtics to play five-out. Within that, he shot a career high 32% of his shot attempts at the rim at a career high 74%. His usage percentage of 22.6% was 90th percentile. The Celtics not only relied on him to space the floor, but he provided an inside threat to play off and was their third option.

Without Porzingis, the Celtics will miss that two-way threat and can’t replace that offensive firepower at that position. They’ll instead ask more out of Derrick White and Jrue Holiday, who are efficient and effective in their own right, to take on more of the burden. But, what this does it make the Celtics a more jump-shooting dominant team and take away the one player who balanced that.

On the other end, Porzingis allowed a 43.3% DFG% which was -3.9% below the opponents’ average. For context, Mobley allowed a 45.5% DFG% (-4% below the opponents’ average) and Allen allowed a 49% DFG% (-1% below the opponents’ average).

Porzingis’ replacement in Horford allowed a 48% DFG% which was 0.1% above the opponents’ average. 48% isn’t a bad number but it’s nowhere near the defensive presence Porzingis offered this year.

With Porzingis on the floor, the Celtics allowed 110.5 points per 100 possessions. With Porzingis off the floor, the Celtics allowed 113.3 points per 100 possessions.

In short: Porzingis will be missed.

On the other end, Dean Wade’s health may be the one to watch more than Allen’s. This isn’t to say the Cavs are better off without Allen or Wade is the better player, but the Cavs need more of Wade’s skillset than they do Allen’s.

I’m sure the Cavs would prefer to have Allen, who has become their second-best player at times this year, but they did manage to go 2-1 in the three games he missed. They also scored 100+ points in two of those games which they’ve only done three times over 12 playoff games the last two years.

Mobley sliding to center allows the Cavs to be more versatile defensively, get another perimeter defender on the floor and play 4-in, 1-out.

Getting Wade back gives them another defender to throw at Tatum and Brown, and he offers something Strus and Okoro really don’t: Length. While Okoro and Strus are good positional defenders, Banchero and Wagner often had the advantage of finishing or shooting over Cavs defenders not named Mobley. The same will be true for Tatum and Brown.

Wade gives the Cavs another long defender while also providing a two-way threat. With how the Cavs role players shot, Bickerstaff was struggling to find two or three playable guys to put alongside Mobley, Mitchell, and Garland. Wade at least gives Bickerstaff another option instead of having to ask Niang to guard Tatum for some minutes or rely on Morris giving them anything more than a scowl on the bench.

Allen looks to be the closest one to returning but either Porzingis or Wade returning could really swing this series in either team’s favor.

Can the core comeback?

Mitchell confirmed his alpha status.

Allen showed the lights were not too bright.

Mobley’s defense was on display, but his offense was inconsistent.

Garland would be a different player by the quarter.

If the Cavs have a chance, it won’t be because Mitchell scores 50 as much as it will be Garland and Mobley being the second and third options most expected them to be.

Mobley won’t have to score 20-25 points each night but he will have to do enough to give the Cavs some frontcourt offense.

If Morris and/or Niang don’t get many minutes, then it’s all on Mobley. The Cavs would be wise to allow Mobley to take the Celtics centers off the dribble while also using his short roll ability to face up and decide to drive or kick based off the Celtics coverage. But more than anything, he’ll have to remain strong with the ball in traffic as White, Holiday and Peyton Pritchard are all pesky defenders.

Garland will have to put together consistent performances night-in, night-out. He can’t have a Game 6 where he plays three quarters and disappears in the fourth. He can’t give a Game 7 where he plays the fourth quarter but is dormant the first three quarters. And he sure can’t have a Game 3 or Game 4 where he hasn’t even gotten off the bus.

White and Holiday will be no easy matchup for Garland but he can’t allow that to phase his aggressiveness. When Garland is aggressive, the Cavs are a better team for it.

Garland was the team’s best three-pointer shooter against the Magic at 40% yet he only had 35 3PA over 7 games – that can’t happen. Garland must let it fly, and let it fly often. The Celtics tend to play more drop coverage with their bigs, perhaps not as much with Horford. If that’s the case, Garland must make them pay.

The aggressive Garland also likes to get downhill which creates so many opportunities for him and for others. That Garland is attacking the paint, able to finish with finesse and find others off kickouts. He can’t be content to dribble on the perimeter with White and Holiday – that’s a battle he won’t win. He must be persistent in getting north-south.

Mitchell’s decision will hinge on how competitive this Cavs team can be moving forward. In turn, that means how good of running mates can Mobley and Garland be.

In some Magic games, it looked like Mitchell was a lone solider. In other games, the potential of what could be flashed.

Garland and Mobley faced a lot of pressure in the first round series, and now have a chance to redeem themselves.

As soon as Mitchell was acquired, it was no longer Garland and Mobley’s timeline as much as Mitchell’s. It required them to grow up quickly and be ready to compete now. The time has come to show if they have what it takes, and Mitchell has the running mates he needs.

Other notes
  • All four of the Cavs wins versus the Magic, Mitchell was the leading scorer. In the three losses, Mitchell was the leading scorer just once.
  • Allen and Merrill had the team’s best win shares per 48 minutes rate followed by Mobley and Mitchell.
  • Merill was also 2nd in offensive box plus-minus. OBPM shows a player’s impact on points differential on offense over 100 possessions compared to average player.
  • While the Celtics were 2nd in rebounding on the year compared to the Magic at 25th, they both were middle of the road (ORL: 14th, BOS: 15th) in offensive rebounding. Neither team created too many second chances which should bode well for the Cavs especially with Allen out. But the Celtics were 1st in defensive rebounding which means the Cavs can’t expect to have the opportunity to clean up their mistakes and must be efficient on first shot attempts.
  • Boston was 27th in free throw attempts on the year – right in line with the Wizards, Spurs, Cavs and Nuggets. The Magic were 1st in regular season FTAs.
  • The Celtics were 1st in spot up FG%.
  • The Celtics were 21-4 without Porzingis this year.
  • The Cavs were 2-3 without Allen and 12-16 without Wade.
  • Of all Celtic regulars, Sam Hauser led the team in points per 100 possession net differential.
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