Playoffs

The Celtics are still waiting for a challenger to emerge in the East, but will there be one?

The Celtics are still waiting for a challenger to emerge in the East, but will there be one?

BOSTON — Is anyone in the Eastern Conference going to give the Celtics a series?

The Cleveland Cavaliers took their first shot of the second round, and it did not go well. They got 33 points from All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell and too little too late from anyone else in Game 1 at TD Garden on Tuesday night. That might be enough to sneak past the Orlando Magic, but Boston, which won 120-95, is a different animal.

It felt like the Celtics could get anyone in double digits if they wanted. Jaylen Brown scored 15 of his 32 points in the opening quarter. Derrick White added 14 of his 25 in the third. Jrue Holiday and Payton Pritchard combined for 30. The Celtics hardly needed Jayson Tatum, who did not shoot well, has yet to be spectacular in these playoffs and still compiled 18 points, 11 rebounds and five assists on the night.

They do not even have Kristaps Porziņģis.

"We've got a lot of threats on our team with the addition of Porziņģis, with the acceleration of Derrick White, and that means a lot of guys are going to have it going," said Brown, who finished 12-for-18 from the field. "When I get it, I need to be efficient with the opportunities that I have. We have a lot of different guys who can do a lot of different things, and I've only empowered that. I think that's made us a better team, but it's also made me more efficient. When I get the ball, I want to be as lethal as possible."

The atmosphere inside TD Garden for this second-round series resembled a hyped regular-season game and has since the playoffs began. Even when the Miami Heat stole Game 2 in Boston, nobody really believed a Jimmy Butler-less roster presented a challenge. The way the rest of that series went — blowout after blowout — the Celtics were just gifting legendary play-by-play man Mike Gorman the courtesy of one final home broadcast.

Gorman, sitting courtside on Tuesday, got the biggest ovation of the night, as the Celtics showed him on the Jumbotron. The next-biggest cheer came at the end of the third quarter, when Pritchard drilled a 28-footer at the buzzer to give Boston a 92-77 lead. Cleveland had not been within single digits since the second. This crowd wanted its blowout, and the Celtics gave it one a few minutes into the fourth.

Everyone in Boston is still waiting on a challenger. No one thinks Cleveland is it, either. The Cavaliers shot 50% from the field and 50% from 3-point range in the first quarter and still trailed at its end, 40-34. The Celtics shot 32% from the field and 25% from 3 in the second quarter and still led at halftime, 59-49.

"The game was closer because we weren't making shots," Brown said. "They were scoring on the other end. … What allowed the game to open up is we kept defending, and then the shots started going in, so defense, being able to get stops, allows us to play the lifestyle we want. That's getting up shots, getting up 3s, but we weren't getting those stops in the first quarter, and that's why the game was a lot closer."

The Celtics beat the Cavaliers by 25 and think they can play far better. And they are probably right.

"If you want to get to where you want to get to against teams like this, you can always fight for another level," said Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla. "The balance of knowing you did a lot of good things but knowing there's 10-15 possessions you want to clean up. … Just having that mindset of getting better every day."

"Anything can happen," added Brown. "It's the NBA playoffs. … It's going to be tough for a team to have to beat us four times, but as long as we come out, execute on both ends, and we're the harder-playing team, I think we'll be fine."

Jaylen Brown led the Celtics with 32 points in Game 1. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The Celtics may not yet be looking for their next opponent, but we certainly can.

The New York Knicks, as tough as they are, could be exhausted come the conference finals. Every night is a dogfight. Their No. 2 scorer, Julius Randle, is out for the season. So, too, is Bojan Bogdanović. Mitchell Robinson may as well be. Head coach Tom Thibodeau trusts six or seven players, depending on the night, and the three most important — Jalen Brunson, OG Anunoby and Josh Hart — are exceeding 40 minutes a night.

Meanwhile, the well-rested Celtics are giving their starters an extra breather in most fourth quarters.

Indiana Pacers point guard Tyrese Haliburton has not been the same since a hamstring injury in January. The Celtics have silenced Pascal Siakam in the playoffs before. Who else is scaring Boston? Myles Turner?

Boston believes Porziņģis will be back, possibly next round, if it bides him time, and Cleveland paid a price for that mission in Game 1. You can get the longest of odds (-1600) if you still believe in the Cavs.

"We've just got a lot of different ways to win a game," said Tatum, who has not exceeded 23 points in a playoff victory this season, "and I would assume it's tough for the other team to try to figure that out."

The question is whether or not a cakewalk to the NBA Finals would actually be good for the Celtics. Whoever emerges from the Western Conference will have gone through a gauntlet. Even if the Minnesota Timberwolves continue to roll — if the Denver Nuggets do not make that a series — they will have done so against a star-laden trio, the defending champions and either Luka Dončić or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

But that is a question for another day. Game 2 of the second round is in Boston on Thursday.

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