For the Celtics, going up against the championship and still-undefeated Cleveland Cavaliers on Boston’s second back to back of the season in only five games was always going to be a challenge. With Al Horford out due to the NBA’s concussion protocol, Jae Crowder injured, Olynyk still resting, Smart just back from injury and Avery Bradley nursing shoulder soreness, this game quickly went from being an uphill battle to waging war from the foot of Mount Everest.
The Celtics had every conceivable excuse to lose, and it would have been understandable for them to rest key guys and take this game as a scheduled loss. But this Celtics squad isn’t the type of team to make excuses or accept defeat.
They came into the game tired, depleted and in some cases almost broken, but they came ready to play. After a first half that saw the Celtics trailing by a significant margin, they managed to stay within striking distance for most of the second half. In the fourth quarter, the Cs were able to battle back to make the final minutes competitive.
In an interesting decision that shows his belief in the rookie’s abilities, Stevens chose to start Jaylen Brown in place of Jae Crowder. This lineup choice meant that Brown would be matched up against LeBron James for most of the game, providing a valuable if challenging experience for the young player. The rest of the starters were pretty much as expected, with Zeller in place of Horford and Bradley, Thomas and Johnson starting as normal.
The Cavs controlled the opening tip and started the scoring with a quick three-pointer from J.R. Smith, providing an early indication of just how difficult this team would be to contain.
The first points for Boston came by way of a tip-in layup from Tyler Zeller, who was fairly impressive in place of Horford his role as starting center, running the floor and finding opportunities.
Avery Bradley continued to show his improvement as Boston’s offensive touchstone, settling into his role as a creator making plays and scoring buckets.
AB goes up and under for the smooth layup! pic.twitter.com/JIBuYFFRg5— Boston Celtics (@celtics) November 4, 2016
Brown continued to prove he’s not afraid, as he went up against perhaps the NBA’s biggest star player without any hesitation. After sinking a three-pointer early and attacking the rim on several occasions, Brown finished the first quarter with 5 points in just six minutes. Stevens was characteristically limited in his words when talking about Brown’s play, but he did admit that he thought the rookie did well against exceptional competition.
The Cavs built an early lead off of some solid shooting, but the Celtics answered back with a 6-0 run and took a slim lead, causing Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue to call the game’s first time-out.
The second half of the first quarter became pretty one-sided, with the Celtics offense stalling and their defense struggling against Cleveland’s sheer star power. After a gutsy effort in the first, the Celtics finished on a broken play that allowed the Cavs to score the final points of the quarter and finish on top 36-25.
The second quarter saw more back-and-forth play as the Cavs maintained their advantage for the most part. Isaiah Thomas struggled to find his offense early, scoring exclusively from the free-throw line for most of the first half. Gerald Green, meanwhile, proved more comfortable and capable in his role as a microwave scorer for the second unit, scoring a few quick buckets and helping the Celtics to stay competitive.
Smart’s struggles from the three-point line remained, but he did provide some strong defense and managed a few crafty buckets. As the Celtics trailed, Brown provided some hope as he fearlessly threw down on ‘King James’ towards the end of the half.
Jaylen Brown takes it baseline and throws one down on the Cavs pic.twitter.com/yRPPaGS9dO— Boston Celtics (@celtics) November 4, 2016
But no matter what the Celtics tried, the Cavaliers seemed able to answer and then some. The Cavs dominated on the boards and stacked up assists, while also limiting turnovers. Cleveland finished the half strong, bringing a 17-point lead to the locker room with the score at 68-51.
It bears mentioning at this point that the Cavaliers are a really, really good basketball team. They are the reigning NBA champions and—because you might not know this—they have LeBron James on their roster.
Nonetheless, the second half would have to see more effort from the Celtics if they wanted to get back in the game.
After a shaky start to the second half, the Celtics seemed to find their footing and fought back a little, chipping away at the Cavs’ lead and out-hustling them on a number of plays throughout the third quarter. Thomas stayed solid from the line but struggled slightly from the field. Amir Johnson, perhaps unsurprisingly, failed to mimic his surprising scoring night against Chicago.
You could tell the whole team was somewhat hobbled, but they never stopped putting in effort. Nonetheless the Celtics’ defense wasn’t able to hold back the Cavaliers’ scoring as LeBron and company continued to score almost at will inside the paint. Despite a valiant effort, the Celtics still went to the final quarter without making a dent in the Cavaliers’ lead. The fourth quarter began with the score at 100-83, and LeBron’s Cavs continued to show why they’re the best in the league right now.
With LeBron resting on the bench, the Celtics managed a minor comeback and fought their way back into the game in the fourth quarter. Some strong play from the Celtics’ younger guys allowed Boston to bring the score to within 7 with six minutes still remaining in the final quarter.
Jaylen Brown’s first game as a starter was an impressive outing for the youngster. He didn’t shy away from big moments, and he silenced the critics who have called his shooting stroke into question. He finished shooting 50 percent from the field with 19 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2 assists. Thomas managed a whopping 30 points and didn’t miss a single shot out of his 14 free-throw attempts. But it was Avery Bradley who acted as an anchor for the Celtics on both ends of the floor. Looking more and more like the on-the-court leader Boston needs him to be, he ended up with a double-double, pulling down 10 rebounds to go along with his 26 points.
Unfortunately the breakout play from Brown and strong effort from the rest of the Celtics wouldn’t be enough to overcome the Cavaliers. Despite fighting their way back into the game and staying competitive, the Celtics clearly struggled without some of their key players and fell to the Cavs 128-122.