BOSTON -- And so the sequel of Roy Hobbs continues. This wasn’t so much a meeting of the East’s top two teams Wednesday as it was a showdown between the planet’s greatest player and Isaiah Thomas, the former No. 60 pick who dreams of replacing LeBron James someday.
“Nobody holds me in check,” said Thomas after scoring his typical 31 points with five assists. “I average 30 points for a reason. I made plays.”
The No. 2 Boston Celtics prevailed 103-99 over the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers because 5-foot-9 Thomas was able to diversify. His run of big plays began with 2:57 remaining when he miraculously stuff-blocked 6-foot-8 Tristan Thompson at the rim.
“I can jump a little bit,” said Thomas. “He didn’t see me -- that’s probably the biggest reason why I blocked it.”
Then Thomas engaged most of the defense on his way to feeding Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley for successive 3-pointers to put Boston up 96-94 with 1:09 to go. Next came a dramatic exchange of 3s with Kyle Korver. Thereafter, when Kyrie Irving (28 points) blew by Thomas for a sensational game-tying drive that he finished around Al Horford, Thomas responded with a pair of free throws to restore Boston’s lead with 28.1 seconds remaining.
Irving tried to force OT, but Thomas’s old AAU teammate Bradley -- in his second night back after missing 18 straight games with a strained Achilles -- forced him to miss a difficult turnaround jumper. When newcomer Deron Williams (2-for-8 in his Cleveland debut) failed to convert a corner 3, the Celtics earned their biggest win of the year. Previously they’d gone 2-7 against Cleveland, the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors -- their top three rivals in the East.
“I told our guys this afternoon -- and just told them now -- I wasn’t as concerned about the result,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens. “I just wanted to play with a real purpose possession to possession, and maximize as many of those as possible. We did a better job with that tonight than we have in a lot of games this year.”
This was a tight back and forth game of elevated importance, as affirmed in the third quarter by a snarling statement dunk from James (amid a triple-double of 28 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists) and a flexing of the muscles by Irving after he finished a weaving drive. In the fourth James and Thomas could be seen diving to wrestle on the floor for a loose ball. There was also a near-miss involving Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who while sitting next to the basket was in danger of being run over by James.
“That’s why I slowed up,” said James. “I definitely slowed up because I knew it was him. I’m not taking no legend out.”
It sounded and felt like the first big game of the season in Boston, as if the fans and the Celtics themselves were getting ready for the playoffs six weeks away. Thomas showed he was able to maintain his high level one night after his franchise-record of 43 straight games with 20 or more points ended in a blasé loss Monday against the Hawks.
What separates Boston from its fellow contenders -- Cleveland, Toronto and Washington -- is that the Celtics came away empty at the trade deadline and buyout market. The Wizards added offense to their second unit (Bojan Bogdanovic and Brandon Jennings) and the Raptors acquired toughness (Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker). But the Cavaliers trumped everyone by landing the high-level playmaking (Williams and, soon, Andrew Bogut) that James had requested in frustration last month. Another recent arrival, Derrick Williams (13 points vs. Boston), has filled in for the injured Kevin Love.
Over these remaining weeks James shouldn’t need to keep playing 37.2 minutes per game (second only to Kyle Lowry) now that Williams, a three-time All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, will be coming off the bench to run the offense. Thompson will be able to rest his sore knee while sharing time with Bogut. But the best thing about their newly arrived pieces is that Williams, Bogut and Korver are all worthy of contributing in the NBA Finals.
Said Stevens: “I don’t think I’m saying anything earth-shattering: We’re all chasing Cleveland.”
Though the Celtics weren’t able to add the star power that team president Danny Ainge was pursuing at the deadline, they have upside for the short term. They inexplicably rank No. 18 in defense -- a drop from No. 5 last season, in spite of Al Horford’s arrival last summer. The recent return of Bradley (who missed 18 straight games dealing with a strained Achilles) and their ambition to win a playoff series for the first time since 2012 figures to help the Celtics tighten their defense.
The Celtics have been mediocre defensively this year, as if waiting for Thomas to keep stealing wins for them in the fourth quarter. On this night, however, they held the defending champions to 40.7 percent from the field amid a high-energy near-triple-double of 10 points, 10 assists and nine points from Horford.
J.R. Smith and Love should be back in April, and by then Williams and Bogut (health permitting) should be fully capable of helping James to return to the NBA Finals for a seventh straight postseason. And that’s the real difference between these two franchises: The Cavaliers have peaked, while the young Celtics are continuing to build.
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