Celtics vs. Cavs second-round playoff preview, odds and prediction

Celtics vs. Cavs second-round playoff preview, odds and prediction originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Celtics exorcised some recent playoff demons by dispatching the Miami Heat in the first round of the 2024 NBA playoffs.

They’ll have the opportunity to do more exorcising in Round 2.

Boston will face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals after the Cavs beat the Orlando Magic in Game 7 on Sunday. It’s the Celtics’ fourth playoff series against Cleveland in the past 10 years, with the Cavs winning the previous three in 2015, 2017 and 2018.

A lot has changed since then, of course: LeBron James took his talents from Cleveland to Los Angeles, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — thrust into starting roles during that 2018 series at age 19 and 21, respectively — have blossomed into All-Stars for Boston.


The Celtics are the clear favorite this year after a dominant 64-18 regular season, but Kristaps Porzingis’ calf injury — which is expected to sideline him for the entire second round — could complicate their path, while Donovan Mitchell will be eager to play spoiler against what might be his favorite NBA opponent (more on that later).

So, how will this one play out? Here’s a full series preview featuring a recap of the teams’ regular-season matchups, keys to victory for each squad and our series prediction.

Series schedule

Here’s a look at the Celtics’ full second-round schedule, with tip-off times already set for Games 1 through 4.

Tune into NBC Sports Boston an hour before tip-off of each game for Celtics Pregame Live, at halftime for Celtics Halftime Live and immediately after each game for Celtics Postgame Live.

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Regular season head-to-head

The Celtics trailed by as many as 15 points early in the teams’ first meeting but outscored Cleveland in each of the final three quarters to grind out a home win. Tatum and Brown scored 25 apiece while all five Boston starters reached double digits in a balanced scoring effort.

Two nights later, the Celtics again fended off a pesky Cavs team led by Donovan Mitchell (31 points, eight rebounds, six assists), Caris LeVert (26 points) and Darius Garland (19 points). In a near-carbon copy of their previous meeting, all five C’s starters scored in double figures with Tatum (27 points) and Brown (22 points) leading the way.

The Celtics led by 22 points entering the fourth quarter and appeared on their way to a season series sweep. Then Dean Wade happened.

The Cavs role player exploded for 20 points in the fourth quarter, hitting 5 of 5 3-pointers and 7 of 7 shot attempts to help Cleveland storm back for a stunning victory despite playing without Mitchell. Tatum had a chance to win the game on the final possession but missed a last-second jumper as time expired.

All three of Boston’s matchups with the Cavs were decided by fewer than 10 points, suggesting this could be a much more tightly-contested series than Round 1, where the Celtics led by as many as 27 points in all four of their victories over Miami.

Tale of the Tape

Here’s how the Celtics and Cavs compared in several notable statistical categories during the regular season, with Boston holding the edge in all but one category. (NBA rank in parentheses.)

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The Celtics will win the series if…

They keep two factors consistent: effort and pace.

The Celtics showed a puzzling lack of the former in their Game 2 loss to the Heat, but responded ratcheting up the defensive intensity in Games 3, 4 and 5. While the Cavs are much more talented offensively than Miami, the C’s are almost impossible to beat when they’re winning 50/50 balls and are connected defensively.

On offense, Boston provided a blueprint for success without Porzingis in Game 5 by cranking up the pace and keeping the ball moving, hitting 16 of 40 3-pointers while racking up 23 assists with eight players recording multiple helpers.

The Celtics were 43-10 this season when they attempted at least 40 3-pointers and 54-11 when they handed out at least 23 assists. When the ball stopped moving and the pace slowed, that’s when Boston’s offense ran into trouble.

The one silver lining of Porzingis’ absence is that it should force the Celtics to increase their ball movement and push the pace instead of letting Porzingis go 1-on-1 in the post. If they can replicate what we saw in Game 5 against a less physical Cavs team, a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals awaits.

The Cavs will win the series if…

Their Big Two becomes the Big Three (or Four).

Mitchell is a postseason stud who’s scored 30 or more points in 23 of his 52 career playoff games, including a 50-piece in Game 6 against the Magic and 39 points in the Game 7 clincher. He’s also a Celtics killer: His 29.6 points per game against Boston are the most he’s scored against any NBA opponent (minimum five games played).

The Celtics’ game plan should start with containing Mitchell and Garland, Cleveland’s second-leading scorer and leading assister. But the Cavs have two role players capable of burning the C’s: Caris LeVert and Max Strus.

LeVert dropped 26 points on Boston back in December and has scored 40 or more points against the Celtics twice in his career. Strus, meanwhile, drilled eight 3-pointers in a three-game span against Boston as a member of the Heat to help Miami win the 2023 Eastern Conference Finals.

Mitchell is fully capable of winning at least one game on his own, and if he gets help from his supporting cast, that number could increase.

Another storyline to monitor: Big man Jarrett Allen, who averaged 17 points and 13.8 rebounds in Games 1 through 4 against Orlando, has missed the last three games due to a rib injury. He and fell big man Evan Mobley are both excellent defenders as well who could make it difficult for Boston to score in the paint.


Unsurprisingly, the Celtics enter this series as heavy favorites. They’re still the odds-on favorites to win the NBA title ahead of the Denver Nuggets.


Celtics in six.

The Cavs aren’t the Heat, folks. Mitchell has a proven playoff track record and forms a strong backcourt alongside Garland. Big men Mobley and Allen (if healthy) could give Boston trouble on both ends with Porzingis likely sidelined for the entire series.

The Celtics are title favorites for a reason, though. They’re immensely talented on both ends — Derrick White’s emergence as Boston’s third-leading scorer is a game-changer offensively — and showed impressive focus and maturity in their three consecutive wins over a scrappy Heat team in Round 1.

Mitchell may put the Cavs on his back in one game, and the C’s may go cold beyond the arc in another. But the Celtics are too good for this series to last longer than six games.

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