Going into Boston’s Wednesday clash against the Cavs, members of both teams were insisting it was just another game, and the contest sure lived up to those low expectations. The Cavs won 114–91, and with the exception of an explosive “I have read your Westbrook blog and I did not hit ‘like’” 15-point second quarter from LeBron James (who ended the game with 36 points, 10 boards, and six assists), it was a pretty drab affair, though the Landtrotters routine was appreciated.
This was supposed to be a duel to the death with the Eastern Conference 1-seed on the line, and neither team seemed particularly concerned with postseason home-court advantage or bragging rights, and neither did the TD Garden crowd for that matter. But when the story you want to tell goes missing, you can always find a replacement, so here’s what we got: The Boston Celtics are a Swiss army knife that’s missing the blade.
The Cavs are 3–1 against the Celtics this season. (Don’t laugh.) (OK, go ahead.) This is why you trade for Paul George. Or Jimmy Butler. So that your entire season doesn’t depend on a 5-foot-9 point guard getting his own shot. Isaiah Thomas has been one of the stories of the season, and a reminder that even in a sport we analyze to death, amazing things can be accomplished by the most unlikely of actors.
Thomas had a slightly below-average game, and there was nobody else to make up the difference, much less threaten the Cavaliers. The question of whether Cleveland has a bad defense or has just been playing defense badly will be answered in the playoffs. The Cavs blocked five shots (a couple on IT4), and forced 12 turnovers (scoring 13 points off of them), but they by no means flipped some competitive switch. On possession after possession Boston moved the ball well, but there was no logical end point to the sharing — a long Al Horford 2, a Jae Crowder 3, a doomed Avery Bradley drive. Cleveland didn’t have to turn it on, because Boston never asked it to.
The Celtics were crying out for an alpha scorer to keep them in the game when Cleveland was pouring it on; they needed someone to help chip away at the lead coming out of the break; to finish tough at the rim, draw contact, slow the game down, and test the Cavaliers defenders every time down the court. Thomas can be an inspirational closer, and a steady scoring presence, but against the very best teams, there are going to be nights when Boston can’t get where it wants to go on the back of a folk hero.
Which leads us back to where we always wind up with Boston: Where do the Celtics want to go? Picks are great, long-term flexibility is smart, and maybe Danny Ainge knows that the real window opens in a year or so, when LeBron finally, maybe starts his decline in earnest.
But, man, Paul George would have made this game interesting. Boston needed the kind of player who could score 19 straight with the game on the line, the kind who could physically match up with LeBron and not wilt, the kind who could get 30 on a night when his teammates were doing brickwork.
I hope Lonzo Ball, or whoever the Celtics get in the draft, is worth it. This Cavs team is beatable, but Boston isn’t quite ready to do the beating.