CLEVELAND — On Monday, Celtics coach Brad Stevens sat through a forgettable double-feature. He watched tape of Boston’s Sunday loss to the Warriors, in which it coughed up a 26-point lead, and he watched footage from a November loss to the Cavaliers.
“I mean, that was pretty miserable,” Stevens said.
Then on Tuesday, LeBron James and the Cavaliers were live, in the flesh, and that experience turned out to be the worst of them all. Cleveland scored early, often, and easily, and its 110-79 victory felt even more lopsided than that.
It was the worst loss of the season for the Celtics, it was tied for the worst loss in Stevens’s tenure as coach, and it was tied for the worst loss in the history of the Celtics-Cavaliers series. Cleveland led by as many as 44 points before both teams emptied their benches and decided there was no use pretending this was a competition anymore.
Afterward, the normally stoic Stevens was unusually critical. He remained calm, but he spoke sharply. He questioned the teamwork and intensity and wondered if the Celtics had been softened by the praise they received during their recent three-game winning streak.
“The way we played is not right,” Stevens said. “It’s not acceptable. It’s important for it to hurt. It better hurt.”
Brandon Bass had 15 points to lead the Celtics and Isaiah Thomas — who had scored 19 points or more in each game with Boston — finished with 11. The Celtics shot just 35 percent from the floor and were outscored in the paint, 48-22.
“We got bullied in the post the whole night,” Stevens said. “But we’re gonna get bullied in the post. I think the thing we have to do is cover for one another when those moments are happening, and we just didn’t do it.”
James had 27 points in just 25:35 for the Cavaliers and passed Ray Allen for 21st place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
The Celtics are not so naïve as to think they are better than the Cavaliers. But this season — and particularly recently — they have shown that when they are at their best, they are capable of anything. But when they are at their worst, it can get ugly.
In the locker room, the Celtics were mostly puzzled by this setback. Thomas said that on offense, the ball was “sticking,” meaning players were holding it too long rather than rotating and forcing Cleveland’s defense to adjust. He also questioned the effort.
“From the opening tip, we didn’t play like we wanted to win,” Thomas said. “We were playing very soft, offensively and defensively. And we’ve got to fix that. We’re not that good of a team to not play with energy. Every day we have to at least play with energy.”
Stevens, meanwhile, thought that the Celtics abandoned their team-first ethos.
“We played individual basketball on both ends of the floor the whole night,” he said, “and individual basketball against these guys doesn’t work because their individuals are the best in the game.”
A 3-pointer by Avery Bradley with 8:56 left in the first quarter gave the Celtics a 9-5 lead, and that is essentially where the good feelings ended for Boston. The nadir came with 10:19 left in the fourth quarter when former Celtics forward Kendrick Perkins scored inside to give the Cavaliers a 100-56 lead.
In the fourth quarter, the Celtics’ lineup included seldom-used players Gigi Datome, Gerald Wallace, Shavlik Randolph, and Phil Pressey. So for optimists looking for a positive, the regulars on this undermanned team were afforded some extra rest.
“We obviously didn’t take any steps forward,” Tyler Zeller said.
Since holding a 56-30 lead in the first half over the Warriors on Sunday night, the Celtics were outscored by Golden State and Cleveland by a total of 186-124. Although Boston has shown grit and improvement, the divide between the upper tier remains obvious.
After the trade for Thomas and the ensuing three-game winning streak provided a jolt, the past two losses have been sobering. Now the Celtics must regroup before they gradually drift out of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
One beauty of the NBA is that there is never time to sulk or become overly dismayed after a loss, because there is always another game looming. In this case, it will come Wednesday night at TD Garden against the Jazz. And perhaps the game tape produced from that contest is more palatable.
“We can redeem ourselves,” Thomas said, “and we can’t feel sorry for ourselves.”