After back-to-back wins against two of the best teams in the league, the Boston Celtics switch gears to face one of the NBA's worst teams Monday night when they host the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Celtics, winners of five of their last six, are coming off victories of 19 and 13 points over the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets, respectively. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, have lost six straight and 12 of 13, a skid extended by a 47-point loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday.
It marked the second time this season Cleveland has lost by more than 40 points, after a 143-101 defeat against the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 22.
"Our schedule has been relentless," first-year Cavaliers coach John Beilein said. "Almost everywhere that we've played has been a playoff team. Teams are just better than us. There have been a couple recent games that we could have won. All the other games that we've lost were against teams that are frankly better than us at this point of the season."
Boston certainly fits that mold. The Celtics have been one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, especially at home, where they are a perfect 9-0. And the bulk of that has come without Gordon Hayward, who returned to practice Sunday and is questionable Monday as he nears return ahead of schedule from a broken hand that has sidelined him since Nov. 9.
"The last couple of days have been really good," Hayward said. "Tomorrow's a possibility."
Without Hayward, the Celtics have received extra contributions from the dynamic duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Such was on display against the Nuggets, when Tatum scored 26 points and Brown added 21 as Boston coasted to victory over one of the Western Conference's top teams.
"We feed off each other," Brown said. "We have different games, kind of opposite, but it makes sense. It's like fire and ice."
Celtics coach Brad Stevens expressed his appreciation for how Brown and Tatum have worked together.
"Those guys are still getting better," Stevens said. "They're clearly improving in a lot of areas, but I think they're really enjoying playing together and figuring it out with the rest of our team. And it is more fun to be a central player that we're going to in those occasions, and they're taking advantage of it and doing a really good job of it."
That type of sync between young players is what the Cavaliers hope to progress toward. Reportedly willing to deal veteran big man Kevin Love ahead of the February trade deadline, Cleveland is expected to build around its young backcourt of second-year guard Collin Sexton and rookie Darius Garland, who have combined to lead the team in scoring across the last five games.
"There's no question that we're making strides with them everyday," Beilein said last week. "Their experience playing at this level is obviously limited. It's fun watching it as it happens. For me, it is. Never quick enough, but it is (fun)."
The Celtics have won the last five meetings against the Cavs, including a 119-113 victory in Cleveland last month.