Before Wednesday’s marquee matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics had already beaten the San Antonio Spurs in October, came from 26 points down to beat the Houston Rockets on Dec. 28 and they held the Golden State Warriors, who own the best offense in the league, to 88 points in November.
But after an opening night defeat, the Cleveland Cavaliers were the only elite team the Celtics had not disposed of this season.
The result of an early January game will not mean anything come playoff time, but the Celtics made a big statement on Wednesday.
In front of a national television audience, the Celtics held the Cavaliers to a season-low 88 points. LeBron James was the only Cavs’ starter to make more than 50 percent of his shots and Cleveland shot 34.8 percent.
It is unfair to jump to any conclusions about the Cavaliers because Isaiah Thomas did not play against his former team.
Thomas will make Cleveland’s offense better and allow James to get more rest. We got a preview of his impact when he made his season debut against the Portland Trailblazers on Tuesday. Thomas only played 19 minutes, but he took the second-most shots of any player on the team (12) and he shined with the second unit. He finished the night with 17 points, three assists, and four three-pointers while shooting 50 percent.
Thomas’ plus-minus of +17 against Portland was higher than any other Cavaliers point guard this season.
After all, this is what James said after the game.
“I don’t know who we are or what we can be until we get IT back consistently,” he said. “But we know what the program is, so it’s not like a surprise he wasn’t playing tonight. We already know he won’t play in the Indiana game after we’re in (Toronto, Jan. 11-12). He’s not playing back-to-backs right now.”
But from the Celtics perspective, this game was huge for their confidence and the Eastern Conference playoff race going forward.
The Celtics defense is no joke folks. When you hold teams with the likes of James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant to 88 points in a game, that is special — even if Thomas did not play. The Cavaliers have scored plenty of points against other teams without Thomas. The Celtics are just that good on defense.
Not only has Kyrie Irving played at an MVP level with the ball in his hands, but he has helped transform the Celtics into an elite defensive team. Boston finished 12th in defensive rating last season (105.5 points per 100 possessions). This season, the Celtics have the best defensive rating in the league (100.4 points per 100 possessions).
The Cavaliers should still be favored to win the Eastern Conference, but the Celtics defense combined with the Cavaliers defensive struggles should give Boston a great chance to topple James and company.
The true test will come in February when Thomas faces his former team.
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