CLEVELAND — It’s more than just the other team played real well. That reasoning is beyond old. The Celtics just don’t have the makeup to be even a factor in the playoffs as they crawl to the finish of what has been a miserable season.
They lost again Wednesday, and this wasn’t against the rejuvenated Miami Heat or any other team with postseason hopes. The 11-loss-in-a-row Cleveland Cavaliers dominated the Celtics in the fourth quarter and ran away with a 102-94 win.
If you are counting at home, that’s two losses to the Cavaliers, New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons, Sacramento Kings, Chicago Bulls, and one to the 14-loss-in-a-row Oklahoma City Thunder this season. All of those teams are headed for the draft lottery and the Cavaliers are trying to accumulate as many ping-pong balls for a top pick, so it wasn’t like they were grinding for a victory.
But they were going to play the game the right way. And the Celtics again were exposed for bad defense, lack of knowing personnel, and lack of hustle. The Cavaliers got to every loose ball, every key rebound, and then relied on 32-year-old Kevin Love, stuck in the beginning of the Cavaliers rebuilding plan because of his mammoth contract.
Love didn’t play in the first two meetings between these teams, but was pulled out of mothballs Wednesday and scored 30 points with 14 rebounds in 34 minutes. He hit 75 percent of Cleveland’s 3-point shots. Once one of the game’s premier interior players, Love doesn’t drive or post up much anymore, yet he found himself open at the 3-point line constantly and he punished the Celtics like he did in the old days when these teams clashed in the playoffs.
But the moment coach JB Bickerstaff placed Love in the starting lineup, you knew the Celtics were in trouble. It’s been that kind of season. This is hardly surprising. The Celtics put themselves in an 11-point hole late in the opening period and were in a fight the rest of the way.
Boston has spent the season making things more difficult than they should be, playing to the level of its opponents, giving young, hungry players confidence so they can make plays in pivotal moments. It happened against Oklahoma City. It happened against Sacramento. It happened twice against Cleveland.
“I think it was as much about them,” Stevens said of the Cavaliers. “They played well. They have a lot of good players out there. It’s more about them. They did a good job. I don’t want to blame this on fatigue. I don’t want to blame this on anything else. They deserve more credit than that.”
Collin Sexton is an emerging guard, Love is a former All-Star, and Isaac Okoro is a good rookie, but the Cavaliers’ average margin of defeat in their previous seven games was 22 points. The Dallas Mavericks beat Cleveland by a combined 47 points in two matchups. The Portland Trail Blazers won here by 36 points. The Miami Heat and Washington Wizards beat the Cavaliers by a combined 46 points.
But yet, the Cavaliers just happen to put a brilliant game plan together and find the fortitude to beat the Celtics. Cleveland had not held an opponent under 100 points in its previous 15 games, yet Boston shot 35.6 percent and missed 29 3-pointers against the Cavaliers defense.
Brad, it’s not the Cavaliers.
“We shouldn’t take anything for granted,” forward Jayson Tatum said. “I don’t know, maybe it’s human nature. At this point in the season, we should have a sense of urgency because we need it. It’s just tough, especially dropping games like this.”
It’s a good assumption that no team in the play-in tournament fears the Celtics, not this edition, not the gutless crew that plays the same old tired way and has no explanation for why they can’t change or attempt to improve. The 11-loss-in-a-row Cavaliers shot 70.6 percent in the fourth quarter. That’s totally unacceptable. Sexton attempted more free throws (a career-high 16) than the Celtics’ entire team (14). Fouling too often has been an issue all season.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” said Celtics center Tristan Thompson, who played his first game in Cleveland after nine years with the Cavaliers. “We’ve got to keep holding each other accountable. We’ve got to push some buttons and it’s going to come from within with our team. Guys understand, it’s pretty simple right now, you’ve got the play-in tournament. This is the playoffs. This is for all the marbles. There’s no re-dos. You can’t get the season back.”
It’s just even more bewildering for Celtics faithful to know these 11 losses to lottery teams is what has put Boston in the play-in tournament. The Celtics’ inability to punch first, stifle these struggling teams, and make it an easy night has proven costly and it’s honestly embarrassing.
It can’t always be, “well the other team played great tonight.” That happens too often against the Celtics. They are the common denominator. For example, the Thunder lost 14 in a row, beat the Celtics on April 27, and have now lost eight in a row. Oklahoma City’s last victory against anybody besides Boston was March 31.
These are dubious distinctions and ones that will punctuate a disheartening Celtics season unless a shocking change in attitude and approach occurs in the next week. The odds are better that the season could be over by then.