Boston Celtics

Cavaliers show Celtics how far away they are despite valiant comeback effort

No, the
Boston Celtics
are not there. They are not “right there,” they are not “within range.” As of this moment in late December, the Boston Celtics remain the same team they have been and that most considered them to be before the
Cleveland Cavaliers
‘ 124-118 victory over Boston on Thursday night.

The Celtics might wind up the second-best team in the East if the
Toronto Raptors
hit a rough patch and Boston gets a good run together, but they are not a contender, not yet.

It was the Celtics’ second loss this season to the Cavaliers, making them 0-6 vs. the top two teams in each conference. The six-point differential doesn’t reflect how close this game was, nor how lopsided. The Cavaliers led by 20 in the third quarter and 18 to start the fourth quarter, but a furious run by a Celtics’ bench lineup of
Marcus Smart
Jaylen Brown
Jae Crowder
Jonas Jerebko
Tyler Zeller
pushed the game within range. The Celtics only trailed by one point late with a chance to take the lead, but Jae Crowder missed an open 3-point attempt. They could have stolen this one.

The question is, even if they had, would it have mattered?

The Cavaliers pulled up off the accelerator. The Celtics came back because they never quit. Their effort is sustained, consistent, and their discipline always sound. They do not stop fighting, and that’s a credit to the character of the team. However, in the playoffs, every possession matters, and every player goes all out. This is why Boston fell to the
Atlanta Hawks
in the first round last season, and it remains a concern.

Your formula cannot be built on effort, it has to be built on superior talent, matchups and play, and the Celtics are still lacking in those regards.

Maybe most concerning is that the Celtics’ defense continues to show real signs of vulnerability. It was a strength a year ago, but they are 18th this season. The Cavaliers shredded them Thursday night, with new addition
Al Horford
posting a 128 defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) when on the floor. They don’t have a superstar to carry them offensively, and the defense isn’t what it was. There’s time, and Boston has had a great deal of injuries. But if you came into this week thinking that a full-strength Celtics team was ready to go toe-to-toe, finally, with Cleveland, you come away with the same thought we’ve had for so long about Boston.

They need The Trade.

Until that happens, the Celtics are not “there,” unless you’re describing the top of a messy middle of the Eastern Conference.

Takeaways from the Cavs’ win over the Celtics:

Kevin Love
was phenomenal.
He finished with a plus-18 and earned every bit of it. Love had 30 points on 10-of-22 shooting, and 15 boards. The bigger problem beyond Love’s stats was how he a) exposed the Celtics’ defense and b) presents a matchup problem for which Boston has no answer.

When the Celtics put Horford on him, Love drifted to the perimeter and found shots like this, several times:


They just lost him. Nearly every one of Love’s 3-pointers was uncontested, and not off offensive rebounds. They just lost him.

Then, they tried to go smaller on him, and both Crowder and Jerebko had this happen:

Love in triple-threat (face-up, can pass, drive, or shoot) is really dangerous vs. smaller defenders. He’s big enough to just rise up and knock those shots down, find cutters, drive around to the basket (as he did later on Jerebko) and draw fouls if you play up.

This is a matchup problem the Hawks had with Horford, and the Celtics have the same.

Kyrie Irving
is quietly becoming a complete point guard.
Irving dropped a cool 32-5-12 on a blistering 12-of-17 shooting. In December, Irving has averaged 23 points on 47 percent shooting, but more notably, he’s averaged 7.8 assists, up from 4.6 in November. He’s legitimately running the offense, and brought it on the defensive end as well on Thursday. He’s playing the best basketball of his career, which really helps on nights like Thursday when
LeBron James
isn’t dominant.

LeBron James””not great” is still great. James with 23 points on 9-of-18 shooting, eight rebounds, 11 assists. He did have eight turnovers, and struggled with some handsy Celtics defense, including a post-up where he was stymied by tiny
Isaiah Thomas
, but look at that line. You can argue that James went 23-8-11 on 50 percent shooting and didn’t have a good game by his standards.

DeAndre Liggins
, super-sub.
A journeyman who has been everywhere, including the D-League, once again had a great plus-minus at plus-9 in just 20 minutes, playing great defense in dogging Isaiah Thomas and knocking down corner 3-pointers. With
J.R. Smith
out, he’s stepped up and it’s really helped keep them afloat. It’s a credit to the coaching staff and organizational strength of Cleveland to get this kind of impact from a fill-in guy, and a credit to Liggins for making the most of the situation.

Isaiah Thomas remains individually brilliant. Thomas finished with 31 points on 8-of-13 shooting and nine assists and just kept coming after the Cavs. There is a legitimate question to be asked of whether Thomas’ defensive liabilities, especially with this team, outweigh his offense, but his killer instinct is so crucial for establishing anything good for the Celtics. Boston stayed in the game in the first half in large part because of Thomas’ relentlessness. He had just one shot in the fourth quarter, and you have to think that’s a mistake they want to rectify next time they’re in a close game with Cleveland.

Marcus Smart led the comeback. Smart can’t shoot. But he’s a top-notch defender and playmaker. His ability to switch onto bigger players is really valuable, and he gave LeBron a tough challenge even if James got the best of it because he’s LeBron. Smart’s passing in the comeback run was crucial to its success.

Does it feel like the Cavs kind of gave up on the effort? Yes, but that’s Boston’s identity. Keep coming, relentlessly, and bite you if you don’t bring it.

Again, though, that’s not enough to make the Celtics the kind of team they want to be.

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