By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — On the surface, it appeared the table was set perfectly for the Celtics to seize control of the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference on Wednesday night. A shorthanded (no Tristan Thompson) and tired Cleveland Cavaliers team rolled into town with LeBron James downplaying the importance of regular season game No. 78. A rested Celtics team were poised to send a message to the rest of the NBA that they could in fact hang with a Cavs team that had been reeling since the All-Star Break.
Instead, it was James who made sure there was no confusion about the pecking order in the East.
LeBron erupted for 36 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in 39 minutes, picking apart the Celtics on the offensive end for the final three quarters to lead a 114-91 beatdown of Boston. With the win, the Cavs hold a virtual 1.5 game lead over the C’s (since they own the tiebreaker) for the one-seed with just four games remaining in the regular season.
“We got beat by a really good team, who played exceptionally well,” Brad Stevens said bluntly postgame. “I thought they were better, quicker to the ball, you name it – they were better in every category, and made it really tough on us. We didn’t match them.”
The Cavs overcame some horrid shooting in the first quarter to break the game open with a 22-4 at the start of the second frame, when Isaiah Thomas was resting on the bench. The hosts got no closer than nine points the rest of the night as Cavs coach Ty Lue used small sharpshooting lineups to stretch out the C’s defense and open up the floor for James to operate.
“I think it’s hard,” Avery Bradley said after the game. “It was almost – with Tristan Thompson out it was harder for us to guard them because we had no one that could help as much. And we knew that going into the game. But it’s just our job to make sure that we’re talking a little bit more and helping each other out.”
The Cavs exposed the C’s defense to the tune of 95 points in the final three frames. But the problem was bigger than the team’s defensive scheme, according to Isaiah Thomas and company. The All-Star point guard wasn’t happy with how his team approached the matchup from the opening tip.
“They were on a different level than us tonight,” Thomas explained. “They played harder than us in every aspect of the game. I think it really opened up in that second quarter when they went on that run. Every time they go on runs like that — I mean, in the past , it’s hard to take yourself out of that hole, especially when you get down 15, 16 points to such a good team.”
Thomas did his part all night on the offensive end, scoring a team-high 26 points in the loss, but he put the blame on himself for not having his teammates ready to rise to the challenge.
“They played harder than us,” Thomas admitted. “It was obvious, from the jump, for whatever reason. I’ll take the blame on that for not having my guys ready. That’s all on me. I gotta do a better job of getting everybody ready on both ends of the floor. It just didn’t work out for us tonight but, like I said, we gotta turn the page.”
While it’s only one night, it has to be concerning for Boston fans that the defending champions were playing like the team that needed to prove something on Wednesday. With less than a week remaining in the regular season, the green’s major holes (rebounding, bench production, inconsistent defense) continue to show themselves against top tier opponents.
Ultimately, Wednesday’s blowout was a reality check for the Celtics. If they don’t come out with an improved sense of urgency when the postseason arrives next week, they won’t have to worry about a potential Conference Finals showdown with LeBron. Instead, they could be sitting at home and watching.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.