BOSTON – Beyond the doors of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ locker room there was no celebration, no chest-puffing from anyone in sight. Just a few players eating food off paper plates and a couple more scrambling to grab the last bags of ice. If Wednesday’s 114-91 Cavaliers tattooing of the Boston Celtics was important, if it was some kind of message-sending, season-defining win from an embattled defending champ, you would never know it. Just business as usual for the NBA’s most functional dysfunctional group.
A word on the game, and then we’ll leave it – because, really, you didn’t miss much. A one-point first-quarter deficit quickly flipped to a 15-point Cavs lead in the first half, and from there it was academic. Kevin Love (15 points, 16 rebounds) dominated his matchup with Al Horford, and LeBron James (36 points, 10 rebounds) was overwhelming from the start. On paper, Tristan Thompson’s absence weakened the Cavs; in reality, replacing a non-shooter (Thompson) with a good one (Channing Frye) blew up Boston’s game plan and propelled Cleveland to a 46.7 percent shooting night.
“We knew it was going to be a pretty big game,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “We took the right approach and played pretty well tonight.”
Said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, “I thought they were better, quicker to the ball, you name it. They were better in every category … we were lucky it wasn’t worse.”
“Cavs right the ship” is an easy narrative, and, sure, it’s a reasonable one. It’s four straight now for Cleveland, and it just kicked in the teeth the team it is fighting for the conference’s top seed. Love, 11 games into his return from knee surgery, posted his fourth straight double-double and is starting to remind everyone that he was an All-Star having his best season in Cleveland before he was forced out.
Need someone to participate in that story? Yeah, good luck. The Cavs hate to lose, and they will quickly admit spending the waning days of the season fending off Boston isn’t ideal. But the core of this team watched Love struggle through his first season in Cleveland – and have it end with a shoulder injury just when he was starting to get right. The Cavs watched management fire a first-place coach (David Blatt) three months into the next season and replace him with an assistant (Lue) who had never been a head man before. They know three-game losing streaks in March are troubling and finishing the month with the same number of wins as the last-place Brooklyn Nets makes for a cringe-worthy game note. But real adversity? They aren’t there yet.
“Cavs show superiority” is another tidy storyline, but, really, was there any doubt? The 18,000-plus who packed the TD Garden on Wednesday were infected with Celtics fever. Last year’s upstart 48-win team has been replaced by a more hardened 50-win (and counting) club. Isaiah Thomas has entered the MVP race and Horford has solidified a once-shaky power forward slot. But the potential has skewed the reality. A team that hasn’t been out of the first round the last two seasons is now dreaming of getting out of the conference. Wednesday’s loss offered evidence that while Boston continues to inch toward contender status, it isn’t there yet.
Cleveland is, and let’s be honest: Self-destruction is the Cavs’ fiercest foe. Boston can’t touch Cleveland in a seven-game series; Washington can’t, either. Toronto is a threat, and the addition of Serge Ibaka has hardened the Raptors’ defense and given them a versatility they didn’t have before. But Toronto – currently the third seed – will likely have to run a gauntlet before it gets a crack at the Cavaliers, and it will do it with Kyle Lowry, back after missing 21 games following wrist surgery, trying to get his rhythm back along the way.
The Eastern Conference is still the Cavs’ conference, and they know it. They are complimentary toward conference rivals but rarely do you get the sense they see any of them as peers. They can’t play pedestrian defense in the playoffs, but the Cavs don’t believe they will. The offense can’t be unimaginative, and the Cavs don’t believe it will be. The heavy workload James is taking on late in the season would seem to be a problem, until the Cavs quickly point out practices have effectively been wiped out. Three teams stand between Cleveland and a third straight trip to the Finals, but the one it sees in the mirror stands as its greatest threat.
Cleveland’s days as conference kingpin are numbered, and we may indeed be watching its final ones. The footsteps in Boston and Washington are getting louder. But at their best the Cavs are unbeatable, and Wednesday’s squashing of the Celtics proved that the best for Cleveland is yet to come.