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Celtics tighten grip on Eastern Conference as Cavaliers falter

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Cleveland’s eighth loss in 10 games has Cavs players voicing their discontent to NBA beat writers. Is Boston’s move to trade for Irving looking even stronger?

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

As the fourth quarter of last night’s marquee MLK Day slate of NBA games opened, the Golden State Warriors pulled away from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Throughout the game, the Cavs appeared to push the tempo, while Golden State effortlessly matched the pace and waited for their opponent to run out of gas.

The 118-108 loss was Cleveland’s eight in ten games. They’ve now dropped seven of the last eight meetings with Golden State. And while last week saw four-time league MVP LeBron James berating his team during a blowout loss to the Toronto Raptors, the fallout from last night’s loss was swift, anonymous, and troublesome.

Yahoo’s Ben Rohrbach gathered a group of unsettling quotes from disgruntled Cavaliers, reported across three different outlets on the Cleveland beat.

Complaints about Isaiah Thomas’s defense lead the anonymous quotes from players, who were shy enough to stay anonymous, but not bashful enough to compare him to Kyrie Irving.

The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd ($):

Players on both teams Monday were quietly acknowledging that [Kyrie] Irving’s absence has changed the entire complexion of this rivalry.

More specifics from Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“Rotations are awful. IT [Isaiah Thomas] is so much worse than Kyrie defensively it’s insane,” said a league source. “There is not a great feeling anywhere. They need to limp into the All-Star break and get away from each other.”

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The arguments and comparisons between Thomas’ and Irving’s defense were rampant this summer as news of the trade hit, with no clear indicators beyond the former’s stronger averages and the latter’s championship pedigree. But at least through his four games with Cleveland, Thomas has struggled to find his rhythm. Rohrbach points out that Thomas told reporters that may up to 20 more games.

The question is, can the Cavaliers wait that long?

With the trade deadline fast approaching and Cleveland’s defensive woes yet unsolved, the reports this morning have suddenly thrown the coveted Nets pick (traded by Boston to acquire Irving along with Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and more) back into the rumor mill. The high draft pick has yet to be dangled by the Cavs’ front office and might serve to warm the so-far frosty market. Still, what one move could shore up Cleveland’s woes? Cavs GM Koby Altman —lauded for bringing the Nets pick and Thomas to his organization over the summer— may have another splashy decision on his hands.

Meanwhile, in Boston, Irving leads All Star voting for guards across the NBA. He’s close to tying his career best in points per game (25.2 in 2016-17) and holding tight to his career marks in assists, rebounds, and steals. His pick and roll game with Al Horford is flourishing. And while Irving is still the clear defensive weak spot in the Celtics crunch time lineups, he’s fighting through screens and trying to improve.

With the Cavaliers’ loss to the Warriors last night, the Celtics’ lead in the top spot in the Eastern Conference increase to 4.5 games. There’s plenty more season left to suss out who won the Irving-Thomas blockbuster, but for now Boston looks comfortably behind the wheel while Cleveland fishtails.