BOSTON — We know. We’re getting ahead of ourselves.
But many in the sellout TD Garden crowd wondered the same thing as they watched a barely unrecognizable Cleveland Cavaliers team thump the lifeless Boston Celtics 121-99 — has the Eastern Conference’s balance of power shifted yet again?
Boston’s path to the East finals (and beyond) sure looked clearer last week, when LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas and the aging Cavs seemed spent after losing nine of 13 games. Then Thursday happened: Thomas, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose, Channing Frye and Dwyane Wade out; Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., George Hill and Rodney Hood in.
The “revamped” Cavs have played just one game together, but the difference in their play — from spacing to athleticism to body language — already is evident. So, with the possibility of another playoff matchup looming — Cleveland sits six games back of the first-place Celtics — how do these teams now match up?
Boston’s hallmark this season has been its defense, which held the Cavs to 88 points in their last meeting. But Clarkson, Hood and Hill present new matchup challenges, as all three are versatile playmakers with solid range. And so far, they appear to be fitting right in with James.
Getting Marcus Smart back from injury should help the Celtics control that backcourt trio, which combined to score 44 points Sunday night. The most drastic shift, though, comes at the other end of the floor.
That’s right: The Cavs’ defense actually might be good again. The 6-foot-5 Clarkson can guard multiple backcourt positions, while the 6-foot-8 Hood and the 6-foot-9 Nance offer difficult matchups for Boston’s own pair of rangy wings in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
Brown struggled mightily Sunday with five points on 2-for-9 shooting, while Tatum mustered just nine points with a pair of turnovers.
“They’re long and athletic — (Celtics head coach) Brad (Stevens) does a great job of putting guys on the floor who can switch a lot of things,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said of the Celtics before the game. “(But) I think the trades that we made, we can do the same thing: We can put guys on the floor that are similar sizes (and) can switch on a lot of things.”
James put it more simply after Cleveland held the Celtics to 35 percent shooting in the second half.
“We feel like with the type of caliber players we have right now, we can defend at a high level,” he said.
Any Cavs-C’s matchup, of course, flows through James, whose success in acclimating the newcomers ultimately will decide how Cleveland goes this season. The King sounds impressed with his new court, though.
“We’ve got some smart guys that came to our team that picked up some things very quickly, just from (Saturday’s) practice and (Sunday’s) shootaround,” James added. “So, that’s a good start.”
Boston and Cleveland don’t play again in the regular season, and the No. 2-seed Toronto Raptors could have a significant say in preventing a 2017 Eastern Conference finals rematch. If the two East giants collide again, though, the C’s could face yet another uphill climb against a retooled, rejuvenated Cavs club.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images
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