Cavaliers flip the script against the Celtics in Game 2, making this series a mystery

BOSTON — What a weird thing sports are.

One night, the Celtics can lay waste to the underdog Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of their second-round NBA playoff series, confirming our preconceptions: The 64-win top seeds are going to roll to the Eastern Conference finals. Forty-eight hours later, those Cavs can lay waste to the overwhelming favorites in a 118-94 victory, drawing even in the series and forcing us to question everything. Can they actually win this?

Maybe I was unwise for falling for the ebb and the flow. Maybe Cleveland's naiveté helped them flip the script from one game to the next by 49 points. Maybe Boston is foolish for no-showing nights more than any other great team in recent memory. Maybe none of us know anything until it happens.

You figure it out, because the Cavaliers are not going to help us.

"We definitely wanted to get one [in Boston]," said Cavaliers wing Isaac Okoro, stating the obvious (at least after Game 1), before running through his rolodex of sports clichés. "We know it's one game. We know we have to protect homecourt and just take every game, be physical and take it day by day."

"I like how you threw that in, too," teammate Darius Garland said, tipping his cap to that last platitude.

They knew what they were doing. We are all going through this rigamarole, drawing nightly conclusions, when we know it is a seven-game series. The Celtics will have their ups and downs. So will the Cavs. Who do you really believe wins in the end? After two divergent blowouts, I doubt you've changed your mind.

After all, Boston romped the Miami Heat in Game 1 of their opening-round series, lost the follow-up by double digits and dominated the next three games by a combined 68 points, just as we figured. That Game 2 loss was an anomaly, one in which Miami made a franchise-record 23 3-pointers to Boston's eight.

Those Heat also did not have Jimmy Butler, and these Cavs do have Donovan Mitchell, who played a savvy superstar's game. The Celtics were forcing the ball from Mitchell's hands, since he was the only one who hurt them in Game 1, so he obliged, doling out six assists in an opening half that ended in a 54-all tie. Evan Mobley and Caris LeVert were the biggest benefactors of Mitchell's gravity, combining for 27 first-half points. And when their performance drew the Boston defense's respect, Mitchell went back to his usual work, scoring 23 of his 29 points in the second half. He took what they gave him, to borrow a cliché.

"They guarded me a little bit different, a little bit higher in the pick-and-roll ... so guys are open," said Mitchell. "Just trying to manipulate the game in that way. And then in the second half, when you've got guys who are making shots, it's human nature to kind of go back to your man and spread the game out."

For his part, Mobley felt his 5-for-5 effort in an otherwise miserable fourth quarter of Game 1 got him into a rhythm that carried into Game 2, when he had a playoff career-high 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting.

"I feel like last game, second half, I caught a flow and started seeing how they were guarding me, where I could score from, and I watched film a little bit, came out here and tried to do the same thing and attack those spots," said Mobley, who added 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocks. "And that's what I did."

(As long as we are breaking the fourth wall here, can momentum be born from garbage time? Can you sleep two nights on a shooting streak? Can you figure things out down 25? A funny thing, these sports.)

This Game 2 could be an aberration, too, since the Cavs shot 46.4% from 3 to the Celtics' 22.9%, but it did not feel like one in the moment. It felt like a beatdown, one Boston's Jaylen Brown called "unacceptable."

Brown also said after Game 1, "It's going to be tough for a team to have to beat us four times," and he is right about both. Your guess is as good as theirs as to whether anything from either game is replicable.

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - MAY 09: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics defends Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the fourth quarter in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Second Round Playoffs at TD Garden on May 09, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Jayson Tatum defends Donovan Mitchell during the fourth quarter of Game 2. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

For one night, Cleveland's game plan worked to perfection. The Cavs scored more points than they had all postseason and limited Boston to their fewest of the playoffs. That plan depended on Mobley twofold: 1) Defensively, run the Celtics off the arc and let him protect the rim, and 2) offensively, own the paint.

The first part, well, everyone should have known that, and the Cavaliers were quick to admit it.

"It's a huge benefit to us to have [Mobley] back there," said Cleveland head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, whose team won its first road game of the playoffs. "The trust level from our guys and understanding that he's there makes their job a lot easier and gives them more confidence on the ball vs. elite offensive players."

The second part? LeVert might have let that one slip past the cliché machine.

"They started the game off with [Al] Horford as their five," he said. "He's their sole rim protector in that unit, and then they have [Luke] Kornet in the second unit. And then after that, it's just those two. I think we did a great job tonight of seeking out the mismatches. Evan did a great job of punishing switches, and then when Horford was on me or other guards, I think we just did a great job of beating him and finishing at the rim, so I think we pose a lot of mismatches for them that they're going to have to figure out."

Hey, someone told us how they really feel, which is that the Cavaliers do not fear Boston's Kristaps Porziņģis-less frontcourt. Then again, Boston's Jayson Tatum said after Game 1, "We've just got a lot of different ways to win a game, and I would assume it's tough for the other team to try to figure that out."

So, who's right? Maybe they both are. Maybe this best-of-seven will last longer than we thought.

We will have a better idea of how this series will play out after Game 3. No more adjustments, then. Just basketball, where anything can happen but the best team usually wins the series. Or not. This is sports.