One Unsustainable Trick To Beating The Boston Celtics

The Cleveland Cavaliers evened their second-round series against the top-seeded Boston Celtics at a game apiece on Thursday night, pounding the hosts by a 118-94 final score. The outcome never felt in doubt in the fourth quarter, and both teams pulled their starters with more than four minutes left to play.

The Cavs did lots of things well in Game 2, as any team that peels a game off this powerhouse Celtics squad will have to: They defended with focus and intensity, and contained Boston’s superstar wings, holding Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to matching modest 7-for-17 shooting lines; and outrebounded the Celtics by 13; and took good care of the ball, and all that. Donovan Mitchell and Evan Mobley were particularly fantastic, combining for 50 points on 34 shots, 17 rebounds, 13 assists, and a single turnover between them. Cleveland won Mitchell’s 40 minutes of playing time by 38 points; in the second half he hit a gear reminiscent of his legendary duels with Denver’s Jamal Murray in the 2020 playoffs, banked in a double-clutch three-pointer from the top of the key, and shrugged. That’s all grand.

But also, the Celtics missed 26 of their 33 three-point attempts during the non-garbage-time portion of the game, the same span during which the Cavs made 13 of 26. That difference—only partly explained by good defense—accounts for three fourths of the 24-point margin when Boston coach Joe Mazzulla emptied his bench with just under five minutes left to play. Neither side of that particular contest—Boston’s 21-percent shooting from beyond the arc, and the Cavs draining half their attempts—seems more than faintly likely to repeat itself again in this series or postseason. Sooner hope for a surprise visit from Halley’s Comet than that they’ll both happen again on the same night.

Boston has now lost twice in these playoffs; the other time was Game 2 of the first round, at home against Miami, when the Heat made a preposterous franchise-record 23 three-pointers on 43 attempts, outscoring Boston by 33 damn points from beyond the arc in a game the Heat won by 10. The Celtics won the other four games of the gentleman’s sweep by 88. You see what I am getting at here.

Great teams have the peculiar quality of seeming all the more invincible when they lose; by definition it doesn’t happen all that often, and when it does you can see the kind of crazy, fluky shit that has to happen to make it possible. When the dynastic mid-1990s Chicago Bulls lost a game, for example, in the three-peat years after Jordan’s first retirement, it didn’t make you think Maybe they’re mortal after all, but rather Oh no, they’re going to beat us by 200 next time. These Celtics—who are not remotely in that stratum, to be clear—could scarcely hit the damn floor with the ball on Thursday night, at the same time as Mitchell and Darius Garland were shooting as though the basket had a giant funnel atop it. No part of that is what either of these teams are like in any aggregate sense; even after the 24-point loss, the Celtics are still plus-1 in the series, and plus-79 for the playoffs. Watching Jaylen Brown and Derrick White (combined 1-for-14 from beyond the arc) bonk open three after open three off various parts of the rim didn’t make me think Maybe the Cavaliers can beat Boston. It made me think Well, that’ll never happen again.

It’s still perfectly possible for the Celtics not to win—or even reach!—the Finals. I just want to establish that it’ll just be extra super hilarious if they don’t.

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