Against one the NBA’s best Tuesday night, the Boston Celtics were at their very worst.
The Celtics had won seven of their previous 11 games and nearly upset the high-powered Golden State Warriors two night earlier, but they appeared overmatched in every way against a Cleveland Cavaliers team that could very well earn the Eastern Conference’s bid to the NBA Finals this spring.
The 110-79 whitewashing was the worst loss of the season for Boston and tied the largest margin of defeat in the Brad Stevens era — and it somehow wasn’t even as close as the score implies. Cleveland led by as many as 44 before calling off the dogs, and the fourth quarter featured copious amounts of Gerald Wallace, Phil Pressey and Luigi Datome.
“I told (the players) it wasn’t good enough, and it’s not OK to walk out of here thinking that, ‘That’s the best team, and you have nights like this,'” head coach Brad Stevens told reporters after the game. “We played individual basketball on both ends of the floor the whole night. And individual basketball against these guys doesn’t work, because their individuals are the best in the game. And so you had better figure out that we’ve got to play collectively on both ends.
“The way we played, it’s not right. It’s not acceptable. If we play the right way, does that mean we’re going to have a chance to win? Maybe a chance. Maybe a chance. But you play the right way anyways, because it’s the right thing to do, and we didn’t.”
All the tenets of the Celtics’ recent trend of success were absent against the Cavs. Ball movement was stagnant. LeBron James (27 points in 26 minutes) was allowed to do pretty much whatever he wanted to. The so-called “Bench Big Three” of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko — an offensive force in recent games — combined to score just 20 points.
“Everybody’s been patting them on the back for the last week,” Stevens said. “That’s what happens sometimes. We’ve got to get back to being a good team.”
Discounting the JV game that was the fourth quarter, Cleveland dominated Boston in rebounding (42-28), assists (25-16), steals (8-4) and blocked shots (6-0). Thomas, whose 11 points were his fewest in a Celtics uniform, said his team “didn’t play like we wanted to win.”
“We’re just not making quick decisions,” the point guard said. “I think when we make quick decisions — whether that’s shoot, drive or pass it to another teammate — we’re very effective. I think that’s what’s worked for us. (Tuesday night), from the jump, we just didn’t make quick decisions, and the ball just stuck. And then they’re a good defensive team to where if you don’t make quick decisions, they’re just going to clog the lane and try to make you beat them.”
One loss to an elite opponent does not derail a season, but Stevens wanted his players to view this as more than a mere hiccup. Any soul-searching will have to be done quickly, though. The Celtics welcome the Utah Jazz to TD Garden on Wednesday.
“It’s important for it to hurt,” Stevens said. “It better hurt. I’ve said that all along. This is where you determine how you respond — (that’s) everything. We’ll find out a lot more about ourselves in 24 hours.”
Thumbnail photo via David Richard/USA TODAY Sports Images