CLEVELAND – The Boston Celtics have been on quite the high lately, praised incessantly for their unselfish, blue-collar work ethic that has paved the way for them to be among the last teams standing.
But all that talk about how good they are has the potential to be intoxicating to the point where they lose sight of what they did to deserve so much credit for their unexpected success.
And when that happens, being humbled soon follows in the form of a decisive defeat which is exactly what happened in Game 3 as the Cleveland Cavaliers led wire-to-wire before finishing with a 116-86 win.
Boston’s Terry Rozier was among the Celtics whose play has been highlighted recently as being instrumental to Boston’s success which has them currently up 2-1 in their best-of-seven series with Cleveland with Game 4 in Cleveland on Monday and Game 5 back in Boston on Wednesday.
“I feel like we needed this (loss) to get us back … to get us ready for Monday,” Rozier said.
Rozier later added, “We needed to get our butts whipped. Come back to reality and take care of business on Monday.”
Rozier’s comments speak to what is always a growing concern with a team that has unexpected success and finds themselves competing on a stage that frankly, few outside their organization believed was possible.
But to the Celtics credit, they made Game 3 more about what the Cavs did well rather than what they did wrong.
“They played well today,” said Boston’s Jayson Tatum who led the Celtics with 18 points. “They hit a lot of shots. They were the tougher team, more organized, more focused team.”
Boston’s Marcus Morris had similar thoughts on the Boston beatdown.
“They played well,” Morris said. “They got off to a good start, hit some shots; played well.”
Marcus Smart added, “They (landed) the first punch and we just couldn’t respond.”
Which is not what you want to see or hear if you’re a Celtics fan, even if Boston’s journey to the Eastern Conference has been an unexpected journey few would have imagined possible considering all the injuries and basketball-related adversity that this team has endured.
Boston being in the Eastern Conference finals wasn’t that big a stretch this season until you factor in that this postseason run has come about with Boston’s top two players – Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward – both out of the mix.
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens was consistent in crediting the Cavaliers for playing a better game on Saturday, doing all the little and not-so-little things needed to win.
“We were clearly not the harder-playing, more connected team tonight,” Stevens said. “Cleveland was, and they deserve all the credit for that. I thought they played a great game. They came out and really moved it and were really tough, got into us defensively.”
But that’s nothing new to the Celtics.
Teams have come at them before with tough, gritty defense.
More times than not, Boston has found a way to respond affirmatively and make what had the look of a blowout, into a much closer game or in some instances, a victory.
But Boston fell short on both fronts in Game 3, never mounting anything remotely close to a comeback as Cleveland delivered an emphatic pounding that if it did anything, it delivered a sense of humility to a team that may have been thinking they were good enough to win without necessarily doing all those little things that we saw in Games 1 and 2 that aided their quest for victory.
But that didn’t happen on Saturday night.
Rather than bounce back in Game 3, they were buried by a Cleveland team that more than anything else, played with the kind of desperation that’s required this time of the year.
A number of Celtics players talked about how they had nothing to lose coming into Game 3, acutely aware that regardless of how Game 3 played out the goal for them in Cleveland was to get Game 3 or Game 4 with the latter being a very real possibility despite getting blown out in Game 3.
But that’s playing with fire, especially when it’s a LeBron James-led team you’re trying to take down.
If anything, the Game 3 loss serves as a reminder of how difficult it is to win on the road in the playoffs, something Boston has failed to do in five of its six road games in the postseason.
Of course, there’s the all-too-easy narrative to fall back on that centers around Boston’s youth or the team’s scrappy play despite missing key figures in their regular rotation.
And yes, a bit of humble pie is certainly in order as well.
But the true takeaway for Stevens’ young team is simple.
“It’s about how you play between the lines,” Stevens said. “Because I think if you start talking about (home versus road), then you find excuses in both places. We can’t play like we played tonight no matter where we played. If we would have played in Boston like that, we would have gotten beat. We’ve got a game on Monday, and we’ve got to be ready to play better.”
And that requires being tougher defensively, contesting shots without fouling, rebounding the ball, getting contributions from everyone who steps on the floor … all the little things Boston has been praised for in the postseason but were nowhere to be found in Game 3 on Saturday.