When the NBA schedule was released last summer, the Celtics’ Nov. 3 game against the Cavaliers figured to offer a good litmus test to see where this new group stood against the defending champions.
But then forward Al Horford — probably the biggest free-agent prize outside of Kevin Durant last offseason — got a concussion. And then Jae Crowder — the player the Celtics typically deploy to defend LeBron James — sprained his ankle.
And so the Celtics arrived in Cleveland, and their starting lineup included Tyler Zeller at center and rookie Jaylen Brown at small forward, and the game went just about as would be expected. The Cavaliers blitzed to a 20-point lead before taking a 128-122 win that never really felt that close.
But Thursday night will bring the Celtics a new opportunity. This time they are whole, and they have been pretty good when they are whole.
“The first thing is that we are healthy,” Horford said. “We’ve come a long way. The good thing is I feel like there’s still a lot of improvement for our group and for our team. But I feel much, much better about our team now than I did two months ago.”
The Celtics have won six of their last seven games, including impressive road wins against the Grizzlies, Pacers, and Knicks. Of course, the Cavaliers are on a different plane.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has consistently insisted that no single game is more important than any other. And it is true that the standings will not discriminate at season’s end. But it is also true that a defining road win against the defending NBA champions would be good for confidence, and to show this young Boston team that it belongs amid the league’s elite.
As the season nears the halfway point, the Celtics are 0-8 against teams that currently have a winning percentage of .600 or better.
“We’re going to be ready for them,” said forward Gerald Green. “I think that’s one of those games where you don’t have to get guys up for that game. I think it’s one of those games where people are going to be ready.”
Horford has become quite familiar with the Cavaliers, as his Atlanta Hawks were swept out of the playoffs by them each of the last two seasons. He said the key — which is easier said than done — will be containing the ball, particularly when it is in the hands of James or Kyrie Irving.
“I feel like a guy like Jae, matching up on LeBron, is going to be able to do that,” Horford said. “Then, we have some depth at that position. So whether it’s Jaylen helping out, or if Gerald has to guard him, or even if I have to guard him, we’ll have plenty of guys who are able to contain the ball.
“And we have to try do the same thing with Kyrie. And it’s tough, because they really challenge you and stretch you. But I think that if we can keep the ball contained against them, I think that gives us our best chance.”
The Cavaliers will be without starting shooting guard J.R. Smith, who is out with a thumb injury. Irving missed practice Wednesday because of an illness, but he is expected to play Thursday.
Stevens said the Cavaliers’ championship appears to have lifted a burden off them. They are playing well together, and they are now in the unusual position of defending a title and operating somewhat out of the spotlight, which seems almost implausible for a team that includes James.
“How many times does a team that wins the championship enter a new season, and everybody else is talking about another team?” Stevens said. “So they’ve got the great combination of having achieved something great, and they can still play as the hunted in a lot of ways, because of the way people talk about Golden State.”
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The Celtics assigned second-year forward Jordan Mickey to the Maine Red Claws. Guard Damion Lee, who was with the Celtics during training camp before being assigned to Maine as an affiliate player, has a torn anterior cruciate ligament and is out for the season.