WALTHAM, Mass. – The Cleveland Cavaliers have had the Boston Celtics’ number over the last three-plus campaigns, boasting a 16-5 record during 21 regular season and playoff matchups. With that being said, there is no reason for Boston to fret as it heads into Wednesday night’s rematch between the 2017 Eastern Conference finalists.
Regardless of Cleveland’s recent success, it has not had a good look at Boston’s young, fresh, talented roster that has come together to amass a league-best 30 wins on the season. This version of the Celtics has been a force that has raised eyebrows around the league, and no team, even the reigning kings of the East, should feel comfortable heading into battle against them.
“This is a whole new team,” Jaylen Brown – one of four returnees from last season – said of his Celtics following Tuesday’s team practice. “It’s the same coaching staff, but a whole new team with 11 new players. Most of the players that were here last year are young guys, but other than that, everybody’s kind of neutral (when it comes to this matchup). So I don’t think anything nostalgic has built up besides some of the players that were here last year.”
The only other time the Cavs have seen this season's version of the Celtics was Oct. 17, when the two squads opened the campaign against each other in Cleveland. But the Boston team that they faced that day was very different than the one they will face Wednesday.
Opening Night marked the first game of a new era for the Celtics. Hardly any of their players had ever played together prior to that point, so the lack of collective experience made it difficult to put any stock into that game.
On top of that, the Celtics lost star free agent signee Gordon Hayward less than six minutes into the game to a left ankle dislocation and left tibia fracture. His horrific injury took an immediate toll on the Celtics, who fell behind by as many as 18 points, before eventually falling 102-99.
The Celtics don’t like looking back on that game, so they’re looking forward to Wednesday’s rematch.
“Obviously we moved on with the game, but mentally that was a hard game,” said Al Horford. “That was a hard game for me, personally, I can say.
"They won; give them credit. But I’m excited about tomorrow."
The Celtics have grown a lot since their dramatic, unpredictable season-opener. Despite dealing with injuries to nearly every key rotation player on the roster over the first 40 games, the C’s have shown tremendous perseverance that has earned them the top record in the East to open up the New Year.
“It’s a lot of credit to coach (Brad Stevens) and also to our guys for really coming together and making the most of it,” said Horford. “We never expected this after Gordon going down, so it’s been a good surprise.”
Cleveland has also shown much growth throughout the season. The Cavs started off the campaign with a rough patch, losing seven of their first 12 games, but went on to win 19 of their next 21. Cleveland comes into this matchup having lost three straight games, but Stevens noted how all three losses were part of a challenging, West Coast road trip.
“They’ve been great,” said Stevens. “Ever since that start when they won all those games in a row, they’ve kind of figured out a rotation that’s good for them. Their second unit is outstanding. They’ve got a guy that’s probably leading the charge for MVP in the league in LeBron (James), who’s been doing it now for 15 years. They’re the team to beat. Everybody knows that. We can all speculate all the way through the season all we want to, but they have been the class of the East.”
Being the “class of the East” does not mean the Cavaliers are untouchable, however, especially in the Celtics' eyes.
“We prepare for them the way we prepare for anybody,” said Brown. “We’ve gotta just do a good job of coming out, being ready and matching their energy. I don’t think anybody has any fear. I think everybody’s even keeled about this game. We think we’re the better team; we just want to come out and show it.”
This Celtics team is far better than the Celtics teams that Cleveland has faced in recent times. It’s far better than the team that the Cavs swept in the first round of the 2015-16 Playoffs, it’s better than the team they ousted in five games during last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, and its certainly better than the newly-brought-together team that they edged by three points during the 2017-18 season opener.
Wednesday night will be Boston’s chance to prove it.
“We want to be able to show that we can compete with this team,” said Brown. “We want to show that we can match up with this team and continue to devise schemes to outplay, outcoach and out-operate the Cleveland Cavaliers. And I think we can do it.”