Every game the Celtics play against a contender seems like a test to determine if they are as good as their record says they are, if they will actually be a threat in the playoffs. Their lack of star power is a rarity among the best teams in the league, so their success is unexpected, even though they have a talented roster. That's why it's so tempting to read too much into their 120-103 loss against the Cavaliers on Saturday.
The Celtics started out on fire, getting stops and buckets at will on their way to an 18-point lead in the first quarter. Isaiah Thomas was challenging the notion that Boston lacks a traditional star and seven players scored, highlighting its superior depth. They were up 13 after the first 12 minutes and it felt right.
Alas, their good stretch wouldn't last, as the Cavaliers found their bearings in the second quarter to erase the deficit and go into the break up one, 55-54, after holding their opponent to 19 points.
LeBron James took over the game in the second half, scoring 20 points in 12 shots. The Celtics' defense, which ranks sixth in the league, couldn't do anything to contain him. Their top-10 offense kept them close for a while, with Thomas leading the way, but it wasn't potent enough to outscore Cleveland. The Cavaliers took control late in the third quarter and wouldn't relinquish it. Boston made a late push to cut the deficit to under double digits but never really had a chance to complete the comeback.
Going just by this game, the concerns about the Celtics as contenders seem confirmed. Then a look at their game logs shows wins against some of the best teams in the league — including the Cavaliers on Feb. 5 — and suddenly discounting them seems rush. Even if they lack that intimidating star, no team will want to face a deep, disciplined squad that plays rugged defense in the perimeter.
If a couple of calls go the other way and the Celtics go back in transition instead of complaining, the score could have been closer. Boston's players lack experience and can let adversity get to them but they are learning and have a great coach to guide them. It's understandable to be wary of their chances on a seven-game series against a similarly good team with more top tier talent but the Celtics have spent all year proving that they are up to the challenge.
Boston has 18 more games to get ready for the playoffs. Some will be losses that will have the critics ready to pounce on them and highlight their weakness. It doesn't matter. Even when they don't win the Celtics are getting wiser and that, more than anything, could make them dangerous in the postseason.
3 other things we learned
The Jazz snapped a five-game losing streak
The Jazz desperately needed a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. Five consecutive losses had them dropping fast in the West. Fortunately for them, they played an injury-ravaged Pelicans team that lost Eric Gordon midway through the game to a finger injury. Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors led the way with a combined 52 points, and Utah snapped a negative streak that was threatening to derail its season.
Building on it, however, could prove challenging. They will face both the Warriors and the Cavaliers next week, as well as solid teams like the Hawks and the Wizards. The Jazz will have to step up and not only beat the opponents they are supposed to beat but also claim some surprising victories to keep pace in the West.
It's a key stretch for Utah that could either make them stronger as they make a final push or kill their chances to make the postseason.
Manu Ginobili and Jimmy Butler are back
Manu Ginobili and Jimmy Butler missed a month each, so they were supposed to be a little rusty in their first game back. Instead, they scored 22 and 24 points, respectively, and helped lead their teams to victory. The Spurs, without LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green and Tim Duncan, beat the Kings while the Bulls took down the Rockets in Chicago.
Nikola Mirotic also returned for the Bulls, which needed both back after struggling mightily in recent weeks. They need to start stringing out wins if they want to make the playoffs in the East and having two of their best players back will certainly help them. The Spurs, meanwhile, got back a key bench contributor who even at 38 years of age makes everyone around him better.
More importantly, fans will get to see two of the most exciting players in the league again, so everybody wins.
The bottom of the East's playoff bracket remains a wonderful mess
The Pacers beat the Wizards 100-99 and are now 33-30 for the season, good for seventh in the conference and just one game back from the Hornets. The Wizards are now 30-32 and one game behind the eighth seed. The Bulls won, so they now have surpassed the Pistons, which lost to the Knicks, for the last playoff spot. The Hawks lost, so they are now tied with the Hornets for the fifth best record in the conference. And we haven't gotten into tie-breakers yet.
There's some intrigue out West, with the Jazz and the Rockets vying for the eighth spot, but the real action in terms of seeding is in the other conference. Every game counts, as there are six teams fighting for four spots and all of them are good enough to grind out wins. The race for seeding in the East should provide plenty of excitement for the final stretch of the regular season, when a lot is already decided.
Play of the night
Jeff Teague has moves.