It may only be October, but the Celtics have every reason to be encouraged by the results of their first meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers this season.
Any preseason result should be taken with a grain of salt, obviously. But the way the Celtics looked out there — matched up with their likely rivals for the top spot in the Eastern Conference — they have to be feeling good.
This one doesn’t count for the standings that will ultimately decide the teams’ playoff hopes in April. But in a way, it counts for a lot because it proves to this Boston team that the Cavs, retooled and revamped since their exit from the 2009 playoffs, are far from invincible.On paper, the Cavs looked like the most improved team in the East — and they already won 66 games last year. Since that time, they’ve done nothing but pile on more talent. They’ve added Jamario Moon, a fiery 6-foot-8 forward with scoring ability and aggressiveness on the glass. They’ve added Anthony Parker, a veteran guard who will add size and physicality to the Cavs’ backcourt. And they’ve poached Leon Powe away from Boston, giving them yet another capable forward off the bench.
And then there’s that Shaq guy.
But the Cavs, even with two of the greatest players of our generation in Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James on the floor, looked human on Wednesday night.
Their defense was spotty. Rajon Rondo used his athleticism to run all over the Cavs — never known for his scoring prowess, the young guard was driving the lane and creating buckets. Marquis Daniels, the new swingman just starting to learn the Celtics’ system, was cutting around defenders and scoring at will. Eddie House was open all night long, and the C’s efficient offense was moving the ball perfectly, creating open shots and hitting them.
The Celtics are known for the prowess of their Big Three, and many would chalk up the success of the team’s last two seasons to the contributions of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. But on a night when Allen and Garnett sat and watched, and Pierce was limited to just 13 minutes, the C’s supporting cast shined. Without two of their biggest stars, the Celtics worked together to earn an impressive team win.
Their defense on James was admirable, holding the King to 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting. The C’s didn’t shy away from Shaquille in the paint — Shelden Williams had eight rebounds, Kendrick Perkins grabbed seven and Rasheed Wallace had six to Shaq’s five.
The Cavs brought their stars, but the C’s brought a complete team. Five members of that team scored in double figures, and that’s why the Celtics won, 96-82.
Of course, there are never any guarantees that October results will cross over to the regular season. But this night was definitely a step in the right direction for the Celtics, who may have at least encouraged Cleveland to stop the presses on those NBA Finals tickets.
This game set the tone for what is sure to be a heated rivalry all season long. And it’s a good precursor to what lies ahead for these two teams.
Boston and Cleveland take the floor for the real thing six days later. On Oct. 27, the East’s two powers open the regular season with their initial battle for conference supremacy. If the Cavs looked a little off this time out, they’ll certainly be ready to go next week.
But Wednesday night was certainly a good ice-breaker for these Celtics. The aura of invincibility that surrounded the revamped Cavaliers is gone — this is a beatable Cleveland team, and the Celtics will know it when they take the floor at Quicken Loans Arena.