BOSTON – Before Wednesday night’s game between the Celtics and Cavs, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who felt these two teams were equal. even if their shared 50-27 record might suggest otherwise.
And as you pick through the carnage left in the wake of Cleveland’s 114-91 beatdown, the difference between these two was pronounced in so many ways as the Cavs handed Boston their most lopsided home loss this season.
With the win, Cleveland (51-27) not only has a one-game lead over the Celtics (50-28) in the East, but it also gives them the head-to-head series, three games to one. That means if the two finish in a tie, the Cavs would get the higher seed, which in this case means the top seed. and with that, home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
While Cleveland jumped out to a quick 11-4 lead, the Celtics bounced back, led by Isaiah Thomas, to close out the first with a 16-8 spurt, which gave them a 20-19 lead after one quarter of play.
That's when it got ugly for Boston.
Thomas, who had 12 of his team-high 26 points while playing all 12 minutes of the first, began the second quarter on the bench.
His absence was felt immediately as the Cavs scored four quick points on dunks by Richard Jefferson and LeBron James.
James led all scorers with a double-double of 36 points and 10 rebounds, while Kevin Love had a double-double of 15 points and 16 rebounds.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens called a timeout to slow down Cleveland’s momentum.
But anything short of putting Thomas back in the game – which he didn’t – wasn’t going to have much of an impact on the momentum the Cavs were steadily gaining.
With Thomas still on the bench, Cleveland’s control of the game continued to increase.
And by the time Thomas returned to the floor with 5:57 to play in the half, the Celtics were looking up at a 17-point deficit.
Coming on to the floor about midway through the second quarter was the usual substitution pattern that Stevens has used with Thomas this season, so it wasn’t all that surprising that he didn’t insert him earlier.
What was surprising was how bad the Celtics were offensively without Thomas on the floor.
It has been well documented how Boston has struggled to score when Thomas is out of the game getting a rest.
But the offensive woes experienced against the Cavs on Wednesday were unusually bad, even by Boston standards.
Cleveland continued to pour it on in the third quarter in which they led by as many as 29 points before entering the fourth quarter with a strangle-hold of a lead, 90-66.
Boston’s reserves chipped away at Cleveland’s enormous lead, but failed to make the one or two plays that would have put some semblance of pressure on the Cavs.
Trailing 95-74, Jaylen Brown got open along the baseline and drained a 3-pointer with just under nine minutes to play.
But the shot was waived off because Brown had stepped out of bounds prior to the taking the shot.
Boston faced a double-digit deficit the rest of the game, indicative of what happens when only one team shows the capacity to elevate its play, which the Cavs did, at both ends of the floor.
Trailing 105-82 with less than five minutes to play, Stevens clearly was on to the next game – Thursday night at Atlanta – when he inserted end-of-the-bench players James Young and Jordan Mickey.
And so the Celtics move on to Atlanta for a Thursday night matchup, trailing the Cavs by one game.
But as we saw on Wednesday, even with the Celtics’ record putting them on the heels of the Cavs, these two teams aren’t nearly as close as their records might suggest.