After the final buzzer sounded in the Celtics’ convincing 102-88 win over the Cavaliers on Wednesday night, Cleveland point guard Isaiah Thomas slowly walked toward the home bench that had been his home bench for the last three years.
As he neared midcourt, he was met by several of his former Celtics teammates. He hugged Terry Rozier. He hugged Marcus Smart. He hugged Jaylen Brown.
Thomas, who had spent so many nights electrifying TD Garden with seemingly impossible performances, never wanted to leave this city. But he had no say. And after he was traded for Kyrie Irving last summer, his legacy here was suddenly cut short.
He had thought about what it would be like to come back here as an opponent, either to get revenge, or to show the fans what they’d lost, or both.
But as this game drew closer and Thomas remained out with the hip injury he sustained last season, it became increasingly likely he would not play. Thomas made his debut against the Blazers on Tuesday and then sat out against Boston on Wednesday, and that was not an accident.
“I was out for seven months,” he said. “There was no way I was going to come back against Boston and play 17 minutes. It’s too big of an opportunity to just play against my former teammates, my former coaches, the city that gave me my biggest opportunity. I always wanted to play in this game, but I thought I would be back a little sooner.”
The Celtics, of course, were not here for nostalgia. They wanted to grab a signature win against the team that figures to be their stiffest competition in the Eastern Conference, and that is what they did. They controlled the game from the start.
Kyrie Irving had just 11 points on 5-of-14 shooting, but he added nine rebounds and six assists. Terry Rozier came off the bench to score 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting.
“Terry was very locked in from the beginning of the game, very assertive offensively,” Celtics forward Al Horford said. “That was a lot of fun to watch.”
Cleveland is now 4½ games behind the Celtics, a significant number considering Boston has finished half its season. Afterward, coach Brad Stevens’s enthusiasm was understandably tempered, however. He pointed out that the Cavs were playing their second game in as many nights, and that they were missing three rotation players, including Thomas.
“We’re not going to go out and overdo this,” Stevens said.
Still, the result was much better than the alternative. The Celtics’ top-ranked defense held Cleveland to a season-low point total and allowed it to make just 34.8 percent of its shots. LeBron James had 19 points, but scored just 3 after halftime.
These teams last met on opening night, and that game was marred by Celtics forward Gordon Hayward’s grisly ankle injury. The Celtics lost that game, but they spent most of the night in a fog. This time was different.
“Keeping them under 90 [was big],” Irving said, “defensively just being in the right spots and making them uncomfortable in the half court as best we could.”
The Celtics had planned a tribute video for Thomas, but since he was not playing and his family was not here, he asked the team to postpone it until the Cavaliers return on Feb. 11. Former Celtics forward Jae Crowder, who also was an important part of this franchise’s recent revival, was the last Cavalier to be introduced on Wednesday night, and he received a warm yet subdued ovation. He had just 6 points on 2-of-12 shooting.
Thomas joined his teammates on the bench midway through the first quarter and the fans who noticed him cheered. Then during a timeout a few minutes later he was shown on the arena’s video board and he received a standing ovation.
“It’s genuine love on both sides,” Thomas said later. “The fans are everything here.”
Thomas had 17 points in just 19 minutes on Tuesday, and on Wednesday it was apparent that Cleveland could sorely use his firepower. James spent much of the first half plowing through the lane for baskets, but his teammates gave him hardly any help.
In the first quarter the Cavaliers made just 7 of 24 shots, and Rozier closed the period with a flourish. In the final 39 seconds he hit a 3-pointer, tipped in his own missed layup and then drilled another 3, helping Boston take a 32-21 lead.
James finally received some assistance from Kyle Korver in the second quarter. The 36-year-old hit three 3-pointers in a row from the left arc before adding another from the right corner that sliced a 13-point Boston lead to 42-35.
Kevin Love missed all eight of his first-half shots and suffered an ankle injury in the final minutes of the second quarter. He played on for a few minutes before checking himself out of the game with a minute left and going directly to the locker room. When his teammates joined him there at the break, they trailed 55-47.
Love returned to start the third quarter and quickly scored inside, but that could not get him untracked, as he missed his next two shots and then was ruled out with his ankle injury.
The Celtics made their first three 3-pointers of the third and took their largest lead, 75-55, on a 3-point play by Irving with 6:21 left. Cleveland used an 11-2 run that was capped by Korver’s fifth 3-pointer to pull within 77-66. But Jaylen Brown responded with a pair of acrobatic dunks, and the Celtics took an 81-68 lead to the fourth.
James was on the bench at the start of the final quarter, and the Celtics scored 6 straight points to stretch their lead to 19. The lead was never threatened again, and James never returned.
More photos by Jim Davis