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The Boston Celtics are no longer atop the Eastern Conference standings, a fact that was reinforced with their embarrassing 121-99 loss at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday at TD Garden.
The loss left Boston (40-18) a half-game behind Toronto (39-16) in the East.
However, as the Cavaliers have proven since LeBron James returned home, playoff seeding is anything but an end-all, be-all.
Still, Sunday’s humiliation at the hands of Cleveland on their home parquet marked the third time in Boston’s last four games that the Celtics fell behind by at least 26 points and resulted in them getting blown out for the second time in their last three games, this one on Paul Pierce Day, when his No. 34 was raised to the rafters of The Garden.
“I’d say the constant has been we’ve gotten outplayed pretty thoroughly in segments of each of those games and teams have been very aggressive against us, very physical against us and have played really well, and we haven’t played as well,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters after the game Sunday. “And obviously, against a team like this, against players like this, things don’t go your way when that happens. You’re gonna get a result like that.”
Former Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving, now the leader of the pack with the Celtics, said the opposition has begun to adjust to what has made Boston such a good team this season.
The Celtics have lost their last 3 of 4
3 of… 4 pic.twitter.com/cSBdSwp6sB
— SB Nation (@SBNation) February 11, 2018
“I think that, as Coach said, we came out with a very aggressive mindset and then they made a few things difficult, put us in some positions ourselves where you can tell they’ve made adjustments,” Irving, who had 18 points and five assists in the blowout loss, said. “I feel like over the last three games of playing some of these teams, they’ve made some adjustments since the last time we’ve played them.”
Even though the final margin (22) was one point shy of the biggest loss by the Celtics this season and the fact the Celtics trailed by as many as 29 before Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue called off the dogs, Stevens said he is not concerned about the element of fightback in his team.
“It’s hard to say that because the other day we were down 26 and we came back and took the lead with three minutes to go,” he said. “So I would say that (Sunday) when we got hit, we got tight offensively and we missed some shots, and now all of a sudden they’re on a run and we didn’t really have it to come back. And I didn’t put a couple of these guys back in, so I think that that’s part of it, too.
“But at the end of the day, like, you know, I don’t question the fight of this group. No. I don’t have any doubt that this group will respond when hit in the mouth, generally.”
Defensively, though, Boston surrendered season-highs for points in a first half (64) and in a game (121) this season. Cleveland (33-22) drained 16 of 30 3-point attempts down on the C’s.
“Yeah, we stunk,” Stevens said. “They were really good. They had a lot to do with that.”
Irving, who like Cleveland’s James (24 points, 8 boards, 10 dimes in 28 minutes), did not play in the fourth quarter because the game was already well out of hand. He said, though, there is much to be learned, even in a lopsided loss.
“As we go forward, I think we can consistently learn from not only a game like (this) but the last few games of playing the high-intense teams in the Eastern Conference where we’ve been tested,” he said. “I have a lot to learn. Us as a team, I think we do as well, but it’s just great when you get a chance to kind of go through these things as a young group . . . and I’m looking forward to how we respond.
“I’m not saying that a loss like this is necessarily great,” he continued. “It’s just the experience itself, because they’re high-level teams, and you have to give credit when credit is due. We’re playing against unbelievable players that have come in, and made shots, and made it tough for us defensively. We’ve just got to learn from it.”
For his part, James took the high road when asked is the retooled James Gang is ready to begin to run roughshod through the East again. Cleveland has won the last three conference crowns en route to trips to The Finals.
“Well, I mean, I think they’re playing better basketball than we are, you know, especially for the majority of the season,” he said. “We’ve got some work to still do. We’re just coming together. Guys don’t quite know everything that we want to do. We’ve got to have some practice time and get that, watch a lot of film.
“So we’ve got some catching up to do with not only Boston, but Toronto and Philadelphia and a lot of other teams in the Eastern Conference and the rest of the league to try to get on the page where we feel like we’re confident enough to go out and win a playoff game.”