Through half of their pivotal game Sunday afternoon against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the visiting Celtics were able to hold LeBron James to a mere six points, all tallied over a brief two-minute outburst at the end of the first quarter. Other than that, he was mostly silent.
Then Kevin Garnett poked LeBron in the eye, the physicality picked up, and the Cavs came to life and ran the C's out of the building. The Cavs' MVP front-runner finished with 30 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, three blocks and two steals. Cleveland went on a massive run to start the fourth quarter, eventually running away with a 104-93 win.
This is what happens all too often these days when the Celtics meet up with the Cavaliers. They hang with them at first, keeping things close and giving their fans that tantalizing feeling that maybe this time, it's their game. And then the Cavs flip that switch, turn it on and run away with the victory.
For the Cavs, it's just another win in a season that's already featured 52 of them. For the Celtics, it's a frustrating reminder that the little things can come back to bite them.
"We missed a lot of layups today," Garnett said. "A lot of small things we usually do. We couldn’t get over the hump. We fell back. We felt like we were right there, but we couldn’t turn that corner. You’ve got a team on the ropes at their place, you’ve got to find a way to turn the corner. That’s when you focus in a lot more and you go deeper within and you execute. That’s when execution is really the main thing, and we didn’t do that."
After a loss like this, a lot of teams would look for a moral, look for a lesson that they can take with them moving forward. But not the Celtics. Not after just this one loss.
"It doesn't mean anything," Doc Rivers insisted after Sunday's game. "They won one game. We've played three times, they've won twice, and we have another game against them. I've only said it a hundred times — it's one single game."
There's a good chance that Boston and Cleveland will still see plenty more of each other this spring. They meet up one final time in the regular season on April 4, and then there's the possibility of a matchup down the road in the postseason. It could be a 1-versus-4 showdown in the second round, or even a conference finals matchup if the Celtics play their cards right.
The prospect of meeting LeBron and the Cavs in a seven-game series is daunting. But the Celtics aren't worried, and they aren't reading anything into Sunday's loss.
"You know, two years ago we swept Atlanta in the regular season," Rivers said. "Then we went seven games [in the first round of the playoffs]. When the playoffs start, it's a new thing. We understand that. What we have to do is just keep improving so that when the playoffs start, we're ready. That's the key for us."
Sunday we saw the Cavs pad their lead over the rest of the NBA, improving to 52-15 while the rest of the league just watches in awe. The Celtics fell to fourth in the East. For the first time this season, they trail the Cavs in the standings by double digits.
The gap might be wider every day, but Rivers sees his Celtics as very much alive.
"I think we’re close," he said. "I think we’re really close. But, we can say that all we want, we’ve got to prove it at some point. We had a chance to win this game, but we didn’t.
"We’ve just got to keep dealing. Our goal, like I said earlier, is to get us at our peak when the playoffs start and see where we are at, but we’ve got to get there and we have to work there. We have a lot of work to do."