Latest posts by Don McCormack (see all)
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The Boston Celtics — the first team to win 30 games this season — again find themselves sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings, their 30-10 record being 2.5 games ahead of Toronto (25-10) and 3.5 games ahead to the Cleveland Cavaliers (25-12).
With the Cavaliers coming to TD Garden to face the Celtics for the second meeting between the two teams this season, it will provide a good measuring stick for Boston.
However, no one realizes what little significance the regular-season come playoff time in the spring than Brad Stevens. The Celtics coach has seen his squad eliminated in the Eastern Conference playoffs in each of the past three seasons, including a year ago when Boston entered the postseason as the No. 1 seed in the East and was destroyed by Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals, 4-1.
“They’re the team to beat. Everybody knows that. And we can all speculate all the way through the season all we want to. But they’ve been the class of the East, and that’s it.”
— Celtics coach Brad Stevens on the Cavaliers
The Celtics realize getting the road to The Finals goes through Cleveland, or more specifically, LeBron James, who has led the Cavaliers through Boston en route to The Finals for three consecutive seasons since returning to Cleveland before the 2014-15 campaign.
“They’ve got a guy that’s probably leading the charge for MVP in the league in LeBron, who’s been doing it now for 15 years,” Stevens said after practice Tuesday. “They’re the team to beat. Everybody knows that. And we can all speculate all the way through the season all we want to.
“But they’ve been the class of the East, and that’s it.”
The teams played on opening night at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland back on Oct. 17. The game was won by the Cavaliers, 102-99. While Kyrie Irving of the Celtics was playing against his former teammates for the first time that night, that game is most remembered for the grisly ankle injury suffered by Boston’s Gordon Hayward in the contest’s early moments. Hayward, a free-agent signee in the offseason from Utah, is said to be lost for the season, though there are some whispers he could possibly play again late this season.
After that opening-night loss in Cleveland, the Celtics, still reeling from not only losing Hayward, but also in the manner they did, fell to the Milwaukee Bucks.
However, Boston caught fire, putting together a 16-game winning streak to catapult to the top spot in the East, again. The Cavaliers eventually caught fire, too, stringing together 13 wins in a row and won 18 of 19 before dropping four of five, including being swept on a three-game road trip out West.
Buoyed by the debut of former Celtics All-Star Isaiah Thomas (17 points, 3 assists in 19 minutes), the Cavaliers got back on track Tuesday night, besting the Portland Trail Blazers, 127-110.
Thomas, who is on a minutes restriction and will play in only one half of back-to-backs as he makes his way back from a severe right hip injury that sidelined him for seven months, won’t play tonight — and has requested the Celtics to not honor or pay tribute to him tonight since he is not playing, a request the Celtics honored — the stage is set for Round II for the regular-season.
The Celtics players, like their coach, realize who and what stands in their way… again.
“I think that’s probably fair to say,” post player Al Horford said. “They’re the ones who have won the East all these years in a row. We know what we have. It will be a good game for us to play the right way and grow as a team.”
Horford said not to put much stock, if any, in what happened in Round I on opening night in Cleveland.
“I can’t count that one,” he said. “We moved on with the game, but mentally, that was a hard game for me personally.
“They won, give them credit.”
Youngster Jaylen Brown had similar thoughts.
“Well, it was the first game of the season,” he told reporters, “When Gordon went down, that definitely was a traumatic time for everybody, so (we) kind of overlooked it in a sense.
“But we prepare for them just like we prepare for anybody. We have to just do a good job of coming out and being ready and matching their energy. I don’t think anybody on this team has any type of fear. I think everybody’s even-keeled about this game. I think we think we’re a better team.
“And we just want to come out and show it.”
Brown then attempted to downplay the matchup with the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions tonight.
“They’re an NBA team in the Eastern Conference. What are they, second or third?” he said. “They’re just a team that went to the Finals, the Eastern Conference champs.
“So we view them as a team that comes in, we know they’re good, we know they have a lot of historic players. We just have to come out and compete. We don’t want to come out on our floor and give up anything easy.”
As for being eliminated by the Cavaliers in the postseason, Brown believes things are different now in Beantown.
“I think we know that. And so this is a whole new team now,” he said. “You know, same coaching staff, but a whole new team with 11 new players. And most of the players that were here last year are young guys. Other than that, everybody’s kind of new to it. So I don’t think we have anything nostalgic that’s built up besides some of the players that were here last year.
“Everybody else is coming in and just can play freely. And I think that’s the beauty of it. That’s where we can bring our edge and just come out, play freely, play aggressive, and fly up and down the floor. And I think we’ll be fine.”
For all of the talk about tonight’s game, leave it to James to put it in a nutshell.