By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics have had eight opportunities this season to get wins against the league’s elite (aka: teams that currently hold a better record than them). They have come up empty in all eight of those opportunities.
That is the shadow that will hang over the C’s Thursday night as they head into a nationally televised showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Boston was shorthanded in their first visit to Ohio (a 128-122 loss) during the first week of the year with Jae Crowder (ankle) and Al Horford (concussion) sidelined. This time around it is the Cavs that will be down bodies, with starting shooting guard J.R. Smith (broken thumb) on the mend for the next couple months.
Gerald Green is one Celtic that is excited to see the tables turned on the injury front in the rematch.
“Last time we played them, I don’t think we was healthy, fully healthy,” Green explained. “So now we’re fully healthy, and I guess they’re not, but it doesn’t matter because nobody asked questions when we was hurt either.
“They’re a really good team. Obviously defending champions, have the best player in the world on their team. We’re gonna be ready for it,” continued Green. “I think that’s one of those games that you don’t have to get guys up for that game. That’s one of those games where people are gonna be ready to play for that one.”
The Celtics will also have a bit of momentum on their side for this one after putting together six wins in seven games since Isaiah Thomas returned from a groin injury. The team can also take solace in the fact that only three (Houston, Oklahoma City, San Antonio) of those eight losses against top-tier teams have come when Boston’s had a healthy roster.
Instead, it’s probably smarter to focus on the fact that the C’s have a 13-4 record when their opening night starting five is active. That mark has led to the belief that this squad is finally getting into a groove midway through the season.
“We’ve come a long ways,” Al Horford told reporters at practice Wednesday. “The good thing is I feel like there’s still a lot of improvement for our group and for our team. But I feel much, much better about our team now than I did two months ago.”
The veteran big man emphasized that Boston’s perimeter defense will be essential in helping the visitors pull off the upset win.
“I think the No. 1 thing is containing the ball,” Horford explained. “I feel like a guy like Jae, matching up on LeBron, is going to be able to do that. Then, we have some depth at that position. Whether it’s Jaylen helping out, or if Gerald has to guard him, or even if I have to guard him. We’ll have plenty of guys who are able to contain the ball and we have to try do the same thing with Kyrie. And it’s tough because they really challenge you and stretch you. But I think that if we can keep the ball contained against them, I think that gives us our best chance.”
While the Celtics will still trail the Cavs and Raptors by several games in the standings no matter what happens on Thursday night, the matchup will be one of the best measuring stick opportunities this team will have this season. With no injury excuses left in play, it’s time to show real progress has been made.
“We all know the challenge they present us,” Marcus Smart explained. “It’s gonna be a great game.”
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.