The Celtics’ first-round playoff series against the Cavaliers last April was more testy and intense than typical four-game sweeps. The aggressive play manifested itself in the final game, which included ejections and injuries and ultimately led to suspensions.
Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk and Cavaliers forward Kevin Love tangled while going after a loose ball, and Olynyk clamped down on Love’s shoulder, dislocating it. Love needed surgery and missed the rest of the playoffs. Olynyk, meanwhile, received a one-game suspension as well as countless threats from Cleveland fans.
Cavaliers big man Kendrick Perkins leveled Jae Crowder on a screen and shoved him in the face afterward, receiving a flagrant foul for the screen. Then later in the game, Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith struck Crowder in the face as they battled for a rebound. Crowder dropped to the ground and sprained his knee as he fell backward. Smith was whistled for a flagrant-2 foul and was subsequently ejected. He also received a two-game suspension.
On Tuesday night, these teams will meet at TD Garden for the first time since that series ended. Crowder, for one, made it clear he has not forgotten the incident with Smith.
“I hope he apologizes tomorrow, to be honest with you,” Crowder said. “I hope it wasn’t intentional. But if he doesn’t, then we’ll play ball.”
The general feeling among the Celtics on Monday, though, was that they had moved on from the playoff loss and its aftereffects. Crowder said he was just glad that his knee injury didn’t require surgery. Olynyk apologized to Love last summer and said he received a text message back from him, so he believes they are now on good terms.
“Last year was last year,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I don’t know how guys on either side feel about it. I think obviously Love’s injury was really unfortunate. We all know Kelly, and we all know that he didn’t intend to hurt him. We were really fortunate that Jae, when he went down, didn’t have anything more serious than he had. But the game can get competitive. But it’s a new season for us, and we’re focused on trying to play our best basketball.”
When the Celtics slid into the playoffs with a 40-42 record last year, there was some debate whether a fleeting and inconsequential postseason appearance was better than missing the playoffs and receiving a lottery pick in the draft.
But Stevens found value in the series against the Cavaliers. The Celtics had to learn how to defend LeBron James, be aware of Love as a shooter, and account for Kyrie Irving on pick-and-roll plays — sometimes all at once. They’ve carried some of the lessons learned into this year.
“It’s really helped us from a standpoint of reaching back into what we’ve done and being able to tweak within our system as we go game to game,” Stevens said. “Defensively, they did some things that I just think we had to be better at handling. And we’ve done that better.”
Just like when they faced the then-undefeated Warriors last Friday, the Celtics are not placing added importance on Tuesday’s game against Cleveland. They understand that all the wins and losses will inevitably blend together. But it could give Boston a chance to gauge its progress since last spring. At 14-10, the Celtics are just two games behind the conference-leading Cavaliers.
“They beat us in a series, so we just want to basically show that we’ve grown as a team,” Crowder said. “I feel like we belonged last year. I mean, we compete. . . . It’s the whole year of unfinished business, because I feel like we’ve got to get back to where we were last year to get past that point. It’s not one game. It’s started with the way we’ve started this year out, but [Tuesday] night will be a good opponent for us.”
Irving, who has not played since injuring his kneecap in Game 1 of the NBA Finals last June, is nearing his return. But he is not expected to play Tuesday. Celtics guard R.J. Hunter (hip) returned to practice on Monday and probably will be available to face Cleveland.