By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — If you were expecting an old-fashioned heavyweight slugfest between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night, then you came away disappointed. The Celtics probably don’t feel badly about it.
The Celtics took care of the Cavs handily in a 102-88 romp that was never really in doubt from about the midway point of the first quarter until the final buzzer.
In doing so, the Celtics picked up a much-needed win against their chief rival in the Eastern Conference. And with the season exactly halfway completed, they can also claim to have beaten the best teams in both conferences.
The Celtics own a 2.5-game lead over the Raptors and a 4.5-game lead over the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference. They’re 1-0 against Toronto and 1-1 against Cleveland.
The Celtics have played four games against the top three seeds in the West (Golden State, Houston, San Antonio), and they’ve compiled a strong 3-1 record against them. They’ve won their lone meetings with the Warriors and Rockets, and they’ve gone 1-1 against the Spurs (albeit without Kawhi Leonard in both meetings).
Taking it a step further, the Celtics are 5-1 in their six games against the Western Conference playoff field, and they’re 13-7 against the entire NBA playoff field.
The Celtics’ performance through the first half of the season has been enough for LeBron James to take them seriously as a threat to the throne in the Eastern Conference.
“Absolutely, always, why not?” James said when asked if he ever gets concerned about Eastern Conference teams. “I’m always concerned about teams getting better and better. But I’m more concerned about us getting better and better. That’s the bigger thing. You know, it’s Washington, and obviously this [Celtics] team right here, Miami’s trying to get better and better, Toronto is playing exceptional basketball right now. The East is pretty dang good this year, and right now we’re not so good, [then] great, [then] not so good, see what happens next. But you always gotta be concerned with the competition, for sure.”
Last year, the Cavaliers finished second in the conference but had no issues buzzing through the East playoffs with a 12-1 record, and a 4-1 record against Boston despite not having home-court advantage. But last year through 38 games, the Cavaliers were 28-10. This year, they’re a bit worse at 25-13.
Isaiah Thomas should provide a scoring boost, but as was evident on Wednesday night, the Cavaliers’ defensive issues run deep. Cleveland allows 107.2 points per game, which is ninth-worst in the NBA. Only two teams (Indiana, New Orleans) currently in playoff position rank worse.
While Cleveland has a half-season to solve its own issues, the Celtics have to feel good about where they are. There have been some slip-ups over the course of the first 41 games, but a 5-2 record against the top five teams in the NBA is an indication that they can compete — and win — against the best the NBA has to offer.
And presumably, when Gordon Hayward rejoins the team next season, the Celtics figure to be in prime position to truly contend for a championship.