LeBron James may have taken his talents to South Beach, but to say that he took the life of the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise with him would be to ignore the first two nights of the 2010-11 season. The Celtics have gotten a taste of both sides of King James' "Decision," and the results might come as a surprise.
The C's lost in their first road tilt of the season, 95-87, to a Cavs team that didn't skip a beat in their first game without their departed superstar. One night after toppling LeBron, Dwyane Wade and the Miami superteam, they took a step backward against the Cavaliers. That might sound a little backwards, but it's now a reality for Doc Rivers' Celtics.
"I think we're the most popular team in Cleveland right now," the coach joked after Wednesday's loss. "Beating Miami and then losing to the Cavs."
The Celtics have long proven over the last three-plus seasons that having one dominant superstar isn't necessarily the best recipe for success. The C's have won 179 games in the Big Three era with teamwork, defense and chemistry. The Cavs, in their first game without LeBron James in the building since 2003, toppled the C's with much of the same. It was a total team effort.
The Cavs had J.J. Hickson using his energy and athleticism to barrel into the lane and score. They had Anthony Parker and Ramon Sessions on the wings as playmakers. They had Anderson Varejao, despite taking only four shots the whole game, ruling the night with his defensive presence and prowess on the glass.
With a team this versatile, the Cavs could make you forget that LeBron guy was ever here.
"Honestly, I didn't even think about it," Rivers said. "No, I'm thinking about just defending them. It never crossed my mind, I can tell you."
The Cleveland loss exposed the Celtics to have a lot of the same flaws that doomed them last season. They got fatigued in the second half, unable to sustain their energy on the tail end of a back-to-back. They flattened out offensively in the fourth quarter, settling for too many questionable shots when they could have worked harder for better looks. They played down to the Cavaliers' level, failing to bury them when they stretched their lead as far as nine in the second half.
For now, the Celtics are downplaying these problems. It's still early, and they've got plenty of time to iron out their wrinkles. Rather than sing a "woe is me" tune after their first loss, the C's are instead tipping their caps to a Cavaliers team that earned a hard-fought victory without a departed superstar.
"Give them credit," Rivers said. "They played hard. I told them before the game, the one thing I guaranteed they'd have would be energy. It's their opening night, you played last night, and you have to figure out a way mentally. It's a mental toughness game for us to try to match their energy. Because that's a talent that they're going to have tonight, and you have to try to match it. And if you don't, there can be problems."
Indeed there were.
From the Celtics' perspective, it doesn't make a lot of sense. The C's came out on Tuesday night and toppled the Heat, a team that many picked to win the Eastern Conference and possibly the whole NBA enchilada. Then a night later, they lost to a Cavaliers squad that's been gutted and defeated by this summer's "Decision."
There are two ways you can look at it: Either the Cavs are much better than we initially expected, or the Celtics have only themselves to blame for the foolish mistakes that brought them down Wednesday night. The turnovers, the bad shots, the mindless technical fouls — they all played a role.
But in the end, it doesn't matter. One way or another, the Celtics have fallen to 1-1.
"They beat us," Rivers conceded. "There's nothing we can do about it now. We've tried to play it forward, if you know what I'm saying. There's nothing I can do about either game now. We've just got to keep getting better."