It sure looked like this regular-season game meant a lot
On Tuesday, one night before the Cavaliers visited Boston, LeBron James was asked about the significance of this game involving two teams that were tied for first place in the Eastern Conference. After acknowledging that the atmosphere would be intense and fun, James mostly scoffed at the notion that this was a very big game with very big stakes.
“I’m not one to get caught up in the regular season,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’ve been to six straight Finals, man. I’m the last person to ask about a regular-season game.”
Even though this game might not have meant more to James than the 77 that preceded it, it was clear that it meant something. After all, with less than five minutes left in the 114-91 win and the Cavaliers leading by 26 points, James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love all remained in the game, briefly even going against Celtics third-stringers James Young and Jordan Mickey.
“It’s just another game to get better,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. “We understand [the Celtics] are a good team. They’re second in the East.”
Lue’s statement was a reminder that after a brief respite, his Cavaliers were back in first, alone and unencumbered. And with just four games left, it could be difficult for Boston to surpass them. Cleveland has a one-game lead, and since it holds the tiebreaker, the Celtics would need to gain two games over the final four to secure the top spot.
For the Cavaliers, this win could have value beyond the seeding implications. The thorough, relentless stomping they delivered served as a booming warning to the rest of the NBA that despite slogging through March with 10 losses, they are still the defending champions.
“It’s very disappointing,” Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas said. “We laid an egg tonight. There’s no way around that.”
Thomas had 26 points and six assists to lead the Celtics, who appeared sluggish and uncharacteristically out of touch on defense for long stretches. James had 36 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists in 39 minutes.
“LeBron picked us apart,” Avery Bradley said. “They ran the same play at least 10 times in a row and he either scored or made a play for a teammate. We have to do a better job of containing him.”
Cleveland was without injured center Tristan Thompson, who had battered Boston in each of the three previous meetings this season. But before Wednesday’s game, Celtics coach Brad Stevens cautioned that Thompson’s absence could actually make the Cavaliers more dangerous when they spread the floor with potent shooters and penetrators.
Stevens was prescient. The Cavaliers were 7 for 7 in transition, and in half-court sets, Boston’s defenders were stretched too far along the perimeter, giving James and Irving too much space to dance through.
“That was a different challenge for us, and I felt like we were on our heels for a lot of the night,” Celtics forward Al Horford said. “And it’s something that — if we get to play them again — it’s something we’ll have to address and figure out.”
Despite the humbling loss on a night that began with buzz and promise, the Celtics left their locker room encouraged, and hopeful that this loss will prove beneficial in the long run. After soaring to the top of the conference, maybe they needed to be reminded of their flaws before they forgot they existed.
“I think that aside from the effort standpoint, it’ll make us tighter and stronger as a group,” Horford said. “So I guess it’s better it happens now. We’ll learn from it.”
Thomas had 12 points in the first quarter, helping the Celtics to a 20-19 lead. But he went to the bench at the start of the second quarter, and Boston’s offense has generally been grisly when that happens.
In this case, Cleveland unspooled a devastating 22-4 run that included four dunks and two layups. The Cavaliers got to the basket or found space near it whenever they pleased.
During one powerful sequence, James soared in for a dunk and then swatted Marcus Smart’s layup attempt out of bounds with both hands. James’s momentum carried him into the crowd, where he slapped five with some fans that were jeering, yet also in awe.
By the time Thomas checked back in with 5:57 left, the 1-point lead he had departed with had transformed into a 17-point deficit.
Stevens was asked after the game if he has worries about these droughts that occur when Thomas sits. He acknowledged they sometimes exist, but then made it clear there are other pockmarks, too.
“I’m a lot more concerned right now with making sure we’re all sprinting back and taking away easy baskets at the rim,” he said. “Hopefully we can continue to work hard to generate good shots and play to our strengths, and we’ll go from there.”
In the second quarter, Cleveland made 64 percent of its shots, outrebounded Boston, 14-8, and did not commit a turnover. The Cavs took a 57-42 lead to halftime, and Stevens later said his team was fortunate it was not larger.
The Celtics have made stirring second-half comebacks a habit this season, but it was evident one was not coming on this night. After a 3-pointer by Jae Crowder briefly pulled the Celtics within 59-47, the Cavaliers torched Boston with a 30-13 burst that was capped by back-to-back 3-pointers by Irving and Kyle Korver.
“They were on a different level than us tonight,” Thomas said.