Analyst names surprising biggest threat to the Boston Celtics

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics
Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics / Winslow Townson/GettyImages

The Ringer's Danny Chau pitched a team that could prevent the Boston Celtics from winning the Eastern Conference. And it's not a team many were thinking about at the beginning of the season, and possibly not even at this very moment.

Though Chau thinks the East is Boston's to lose, a familiar foe, one that used to regularly bounce the Celtics from the playoffs, is lurking in the distance. 

"One team with the clear statistical makeup to pose a threat is the Cleveland Cavaliers, who boast a top-two defense and a top-five net rating, both important signifiers of a contender," Chau said. "The Cavs have lost to the Celtics in back-to-back games but weren’t at full strength in either. They’re 18-2 in the 20 games leading into the All-Star break, with intriguing lineup versatility, boasting a breakout defensive stopper in Isaac Okoro and a designated sharpshooter in Sam Merrill, two players that have added new dimensions to the team since mid-December."

Do the Cleveland Cavaliers pose a real threat to the Boston Celtics?

The Cavs' attack revolves around stealth MVP candidate Donovan Mitchell. He's a professional scorer who has decimated the Celtics in the past. Despite having premier point-of-attack defenders in Derrick White and Jrue Holiday, Boston hasn't figured out how to stop quick, shifty guards. What Mitchell lacks in height, he makes up for in athletic prowess, and the Celtics have had little answers on how to slow him down.

Mitchell's averaging a whopping 35 points per game against the Cs in the six games during his Cleveland tenure. They've split those meetings, but considering Boston has had nearly 70% of their games during that span, it's a concerning figure. 

No matter how special Mitchell is, Cleveland's ultimate destiny revolves around spacing. Defensively, Mitchell shares the backcourt with former All-Star point guard Darius Garland. No matter how prolific of an offensive threat these two can be, it's a defensive disaster. To compensate, coach J.B. Bickerstaff has tended to opt for two defensive big men, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. The problem then shifts to having multiple non-shooters on the floor, leading to offensive stagnation.

This push-and-pull has reached a fever pitch as of late. Much of Cleveland's recent hot streak has come with Garland and Mobley sidelined due to injuries. Mitchell has had the car keys to himself, and Allen has been rejuvenated as the sole rim-running big. He's been deadly in the pick-and-roll and a menace roaming the dunker spot. Pair this with ample spacing provided by the likes of Max Strus, Sam Merrill, and Georges Niang, and the Cavs have stumbled upon a winning formula.

Cleveland's recent stretch has been wildly impressive, but it hasn't quieted concerns about whether the starters mesh well together. It's too soon to anoint them as a top challenger if, even during a period of prolonged success, questions are still swirling about some of their most vital players. 

The Celtics aren't just far more talented, but they're far more aware of what their identity is as a team. Cleveland has to escape the first round before worrying about the team to beat in the East.