BOSTON – As much as NBA players and coaches would love to sell you on the notion that every NBA win is equal, we all know better.
There are some victories that - while you don’t necessarily make plans for a victory parade afterward - do have greater significance than others.
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No matter how the Celtics want to look at it, no matter how easily one can point to who the Cavs were missing and its impact on the game, the bottom line is pretty simple.
Boston stepped on the TD Garden floor, determined to beat Cleveland and when the final horn sounded, it was mission accomplished.
The Celtics won 102-88 - the fewest points scored by the Cavs this season.
Boston’s defense has been among the NBA’s best for most of this season, but there was more to this victory than locking guys up defensively.
The Celtics made tougher plays, got their share of 50-50 balls and attacked a Cavaliers defense that’s just plain awful right now.
And Boston didn’t let up, showing the kind of "keep-it-coming" brand of basketball that, in past years under Brad Stevens, the team just didn’t have that kind of talent to execute.
Now they do.
And for the first time in Stevens’ four-plus seasons in Boston, he has a team that on paper – and on Wednesday – has the confidence, swagger and talent to realistically have a shot at knocking off the Cavaliers (25-13), who don’t have the best record in the East (the Celtics are 31-10) but are still the standard bearer that everyone else, Boston included, measures itself up against.
That’s why this game was so important for Boston to not just win, but win in a relatively convincing fashion.
Former Celtics All-Star Isaiah Thomas returned to the TD Garden for the first time since being traded this past summer to Cleveland, along with Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, a second-round pick (via Miami) and the rights to Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round pick.
Thomas, who suffered a hip injury in Boston and missed Cleveland’s first 37 games, has not been cleared to play in back-to-back games yet. He made his season debut against Portland on Tuesday and scored 17 points in just 19 minutes.
When Thomas is allowed to play regular minutes, the Cavs are sure to be a better team; at least offensively they will.
Which is in part why this was such an important victory for the Celtics’ confidence and psyche when you consider how Cleveland has dominated this series in the regular season and the playoffs lately.
“I think that stuff is obviously important,” Stevens said. “But I think it’s more important to just stay in the moment, prepare, play the right way and, you know, we’re not going to go out and overdo this. They were playing on the second night of a back-to-back, we had a couple days off, we looked fresh, I thought, which is a welcome sign.”
Stevens is right.
There are several factors that at a minimum, put Boston in a better position to beat Cleveland on Wednesday.
Still, a better position doesn’t necessarily dictate better play.
And make no mistake about it.
Boston outplayed Cleveland on Wednesday, regardless of the circumstances.
And while the Celtics put even more distance between themselves and the Cavs, who have lost five of their past seven, you won’t find any signs of panic on Cleveland’s part.
We saw that last season in the playoffs when Boston had the top-seed while the Cavs finished behind them.
The two met in the Eastern Conference finals which ended with Cleveland closing out the series in five games.
Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue, a former Celtics assistant, admitted that being four games behind Boston in the East is not something he’s worried about.
“It doesn’t concern me,” he said. “As long as we make the playoffs we are fine.”