Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers took three out of four against the then-defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics. Despite going 3-1 against the Celtics, it was far from a dominant performance for the Cavaliers. All four games were nail-biters that kept fans right on the edge of their seats.
Despite the fact that the Celtics and Cavs did not meet in the playoffs, which was a clash I so desperately wanted, those four regular season games carried a lot of weight because it showed the Cavs could hang with the defending conference champs. This coming season, the Cavs and Celtics will play three times, two of which will be in Boston. All three games will be high-intensity and directly impact the shape of the Eastern Conference.
The Cavaliers and Celtics will go to war this season
I was at the final regular season meeting between the Celtics and Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on March 6, and it felt like Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Throughout the second and third quarters, Boston went up by as many as 15 points, but the Cavaliers didn’t get rattled as they continued to chip away. Thanks to two late free throws from Donovan Mitchell, the Cavs tied the score at 109 and forced OT. Cleveland outscored Boston 9-5 in the extra session to capture the 118-114 victory, which gave the Cavs victory in the overall regular season series, 3-1.
Based on how the series played out last season and the fact that both teams reached the playoffs, I thought the Celtics and Cavaliers would make for an intriguing matchup on Christmas this season. Clearly, the NBA schedule makers didn’t agree — the Cavs aren’t playing on Christmas at all (they play at Dallas on Dec. 27) and the Celtics will be at the LA Lakers. The first two regular-season meetings between Cleveland and Boston will go down in mid-December at TD Garden on Dec. 12 and Dec. 14. Despite taking place fairly early in the season, these will be two critical measuring stick games for the Cavaliers.
The Boston Celtics have firmly cemented themselves as a Tier 1 team alongside the Milwaukee Bucks. Two seasons ago, the Celtics reached the NBA Finals and pushed the Golden State Warriors to six games. Last season, the Celtics came within a game of making NBA history by becoming the first team to overcome a 3-0 series deficit. Despite losing to the New York Knicks in the first round of the playoffs last season, the Cavaliers are still the closest Tier 2 team to challenging for a spot in Tier 1 and joining the Celtics.
When the Cavaliers travel to Boston in mid-December to face the Celtics for that two-game set, it will mark Cleveland’s first matchup against a Tier 1 team (Cleveland doesn’t face Milwaukee for the first time until Dec. 29), which only puts more pressure on Cleveland to at least get a split if not go 2-0. The Cavs went 1-1 at TD Garden last season, so they won’t be scared going into that building. The Cavaliers defeated the Celtics 132-123 in OT on Oct. 28 and then narrowly lost to the Celtics 117-113 on Mar. 1.
Over the offseason, both teams made moves to reshape their respective rosters in order to make deep runs in the playoffs. The Celtics acquired Kristaps Porziņģis in a three-team trade with Washington and Memphis, but they had to send Marcus Smart to Memphis as part of the deal. Boston also traded Grant Williams to Dallas, which could hurt their bench.
Cleveland acquired Max Strus in a sign-and-trade with Miami and signed Georges Niang and Ty Jerome in an effort to add more shooting around their dynamic duo (poor spacing was a huge part of their downfall against the Knicks in the playoffs). The Cavs also acquired Damian Jones from Utah and he’ll spell Jarrett Allen or Evan Mobley when they come off the floor.
Each team has a pair of star-caliber players flanking a versatile big man that makes them legitimate title contenders in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics have Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and now Kristaps Porziņģis while the Cavaliers have Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, and Evan Mobley.
The jury is out on how Porziņģis will fit in alongside Brown and Tatum, given the mixed results of his past superstar pairings in Dallas and Washington, and how the loss of Smart, the heartbeat of the Celtics, will affect the team’s chemistry. These moves could affect the Celtics in a positive manner, but they could also come back to bite them. The additions the Cavaliers made were very sound upgrades that filled their needs. Boston’s moves were compelling in how they shook up their core, while the Cavs kept their group together and built on it.
While their first two games are going down early in the season, the third game comes when the playoff conversation starts to heat up in early March. What if the Celtics and Cavaliers are jockeying for positioning in the Eastern Conference standings when that game comes around?
The first two games in December will serve as the feeling-out process for the Cavaliers to see how their new additions and current core gel together against a perennial powerhouse. The third game is post-All-Star Break and after the trade deadline, so these two contenders will see how their re-tooled rosters stack up in a playoff type of atmosphere at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in downtown Cleveland.
Since the Bucks and Celtics finished first and second in the standings last season respectively, their four matchups this coming season will have a major impact on the conversation around the Eastern Conference contenders. Even though the Cavaliers and Celtics will be playing three games rather than four, those matchups have a significant impact on the shape of the Eastern Conference.