CLEVELAND — On Saturday night, the Celtics were somewhat humbled in a 120-103 loss to the Cavaliers. After blitzing to an early 18-point lead, Boston wilted and was outscored, 103-68, during the rest of the game.
Still, the Celtics returned to Boston encouraged. The loss concluded the season series between the teams, with Cleveland winning two of the three games. And for the Celtics, it was a chance to gauge progress since being swept out of the first round of the playoffs by LeBron James and friends last season.
No, the Celtics are not at Cleveland’s level. But they believe there are indicators that the gap between the teams has narrowed, even if only slightly.
“From our standpoint, from last year, we did a hell of a job getting better,” Celtics forward Jae Crowder said. “We have a long ways to go to beat those guys in a series, but we’re going in the right direction, so, if [a playoff series] does come, we’ll be prepared and ready.”
If a playoff series does come, it is quite unlikely to be in the first round. Last year the Celtics squeaked into the playoffs as a No. 7 seed at 40-42. That record included two late wins against the Cavaliers, who gave considerable rest to their starters because the team had clinched the No. 2 seed.
This season, with just 18 games left, the Celtics are in third place in the East. If they stay there, they would not meet the Cavaliers again until the conference finals.
“Hopefully we’ll see them down the road,” guard Isaiah Thomas said, “and we’ll be playing for something then.”
The Celtics are most effective when they are forcing turnovers, starting fast breaks, and sharing the ball quickly and efficiently. The Cavaliers have hindered their ability to do all of those things this season.
The Celtics rank third in the league in pace, averaging 101.29 possessions per game, but against the Cavaliers that number dips to 96.07, which would rank 22d. Also, 62 percent of the Celtics’ baskets are the result of assists, but that number dips to 54.4 percent over the three games against Cleveland.
And finally, the Celtics score 14.9 percent of their points on fast breaks, sixth best in the league. But against the Cavaliers that figure falls to 10.2 percent, which would be tied for 27th. If the Celtics are to eventually count the Cavaliers as peers, they will need to shift the games so they are played more on their terms.
It is worth noting that two of the three games between these teams took place in Cleveland, where the Cavaliers are mostly indomitable.
An optimist could point out that the Celtics handed the Cavaliers one of their five home losses when Avery Bradley hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer last month. A pessimist could say that it took an incredibly unlikely comeback from a 4-point deficit in the final eight seconds just to steal that win and avoid going 0-3 against the Cavaliers this year.
Nevertheless, a win like that one and a segment like Saturday’s, when the Celtics blitzed Cleveland from all angles to burst to an 18-point lead, seem to have given this team hope.
“They respect us now,” Crowder said. “The respect comes. It’s hard to tell you guys how I know, but it’s the style of play we played when we got up, and how we got up. To beat them, we have to find a way to sustain it over the course of the game. We have the right game plan. We have to stick to it and believe in one another and do it as a group.”
“I think we’re a lot closer,” Thomas said. “They’re definitely — going to the NBA Finals last year, almost winning a championship — we’re not that close right now, but to them we match up pretty well.”
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The Celtics grew increasingly frustrated with the officiating as Saturday’s game progressed, and midway through the third quarter an official warned them that if they kept complaining they would receive a technical foul. Boston trailed by just 3 points with 4:05 left in the third quarter when Marcus Smart was whistled for fouling James. Smart was not happy, and he approached the official and was called for the technical.
“He has to do a better job in those situations and he knows that,” Thomas said. “When it happened, he didn’t really apologize but he was like, ‘My bad, man.’ Just heat of the battle, and we know that. We’ve just got to do a better job as a team when those types of things happen, calming each and everybody down and coming together and not going separate ways.”
Smart, who declined to speak to the media after the loss, is a passionate player, and his intensity often serves the Celtics well. But there have been times this season when he has struggled to control his emotions.
Smart, who has played in just 43 of the Celtics’ 64 games, has received five technical fouls this season after being called for just one as a rookie last year. In the locker room after a recent home game, Celtics center Tyler Zeller gave Smart some advice about how best to deal with the referees. Thomas and Crowder pulled him aside on Saturday, too.
“Just knowing when you can talk to the ref and cannot,” Thomas said.