BOSTON – When Brad Stevens took over as the Celtics’ coach in 2013, you would have been ridiculed as someone who isn’t just drinking - but drowning – in that Celtics Green Kool-Aid if you said they would be in first place by April of 2017.
But even as they went into Wednesday’s matchup with Cleveland atop the Eastern Conference standings with an identical 50-27 record as the Cavs, it still didn’t seem real.
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And as we saw in Cleveland’s annihilation of the Celtics, Boston isn’t quite ready for the Cavs, who played one of their best games of the season in crushing the Celtics, 114-91.
“Just trying to get our team right,” said Cleveland’s LeBron James. “Going down the stretch brings out the best in me.”
The Cavs made shots.
They forced turnovers.
They contested shots and when the Celtics missed, Cleveland was there to gobble up the rebound of Boston’s misses as well as their own.
“They were better, quicker to the ball, you name it,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “They were better in every category, and made it really tough on us. We didn’t match them.”
And that was kind of the point leading into Wednesday’s game, that the Celtics’ rebuilding efforts had them on the cusp of being able to dethrone the Cavs.
After all, 77 games into the season, with five to go, Boston was – on paper at least – Cleveland’s equal.
But as we saw plain as day, Boston isn’t ready for that life just yet.
There is a maturation process that the Celtics must go through to truly be among the elite teams in the NBA.
And while the Celtics have every reason to feel good about where they are, it’s clear that they aren’t as far along in this title-chasing process as their record might lead one to believe.
Countless times in the past month or so, Stevens has reminded anyone within earshot that the Celtics’ play isn’t necessarily at the same level as their record might lead one to believe.
And that has created this false narrative that this team that, because of their record, they are a legit threat to come out of the Eastern Conference.
But then comes a night like Wednesday, one in which the Celtics are totally outplayed by the defending champions, who for long stretches this season, looked nothing like the team to beat.
But as Stevens had warned the media about earlier this week, the Cavs’ numbers this season (especially their defensive ones) and the way they play against the Celtics are not one in the same.
Not even close.
The loss to Cleveland exposed many of the flaws that have dogged the Celtics this season.
When Isaiah Thomas goes to the bench, Boston has no clear No. 2 scorer who can pick up the slack.
We saw with Cleveland that when LeBron James went to the bench, Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love were usually still on the floor which gave them a pair of players who could create their own scoring opportunities in the paint (Love on post-ups, Irving on drives to the rim) in addition to making the Celtics pay with their perimeter shooting prowess.
Putting five shooters on the floor spreads the Celtics defense extremely thin to the point where they couldn’t really double-team or tilt much against the Cavs, a game plan that Cleveland had no choice but to execute due to Tristan Thompson’s thumb injury.
Because of that, Cleveland and its shooters had a field day, connecting on 46.7 percent of their shots (43-for-92).
While Boston hasn’t totally given up on getting the No. 1 seed in the East, they know the road to the top just got steeper and the terrain, a lot rougher.
If Boston has to settle for being the No. 2 seed in the East, that is an accomplishment in itself, the kind that would have gotten you ridiculed if you made such a bold declaration back in 2013.
The Celtics are a team with great potential.
We’ve seen that all season.
But the Cavs’ loss reminded us all that when it comes to beating the champ, the Celtics still have some growing pains to endure before they’re ready to dethrone LeBron James and company.