C's Defense Makes Statement in Blowout of Cavs

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics entered the New Year looking to make a statement. And boy, did they make one Wednesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Throughout the first half of the season, Boston had beaten just about all of the top teams in the league. The C’s defeated the San Antonio Spurs in October for the first time in seven seasons. They ousted the Golden State Warriors in November while holding the defending NBA champs to a season-low 88 points. And they staged a 26-point comeback win against the Houston Rockets in late December.

Cleveland remained the only elite team Boston had yet to beat. That is, until Wednesday night, when the C’s thrashed the Cavs, 102-88 at TD Garden.

Not a single Cleveland player was able to reach 20 points, as Boston held the Cavs to a season-low point total that included three quarters of them scoring 21 points or fewer.

“I thought our defense was really locked-in all night,” said coach Brad Stevens, whose Celtics led Cleveland by as many as 23 points. “I thought we played really purposeful. We weren’t perfect, but we tried to make them go through us to score. And we did a good job of that. I think taking away the transition layups was a part of it, and that’s hard to do against these guys.”

It’s especially hard to do against a player like LeBron James, whom Brad Stevens believes is the leading MVP candidate this season. James entered the game averaging 27.7 points, 9.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds per game, but Boston held him to just 19 points, seven rebounds and six assists, to go along with a game-high four turnovers.

“Their defense was very good,” James admitted after the game. “They were very in tune to what we wanted to do execution-wise offensively. We had some good looks at times, some of the looks were a little bit tougher, but they had good defensive play and they executed very well.”

The Celtics did not take any plays off on the defensive end, as they made Cleveland uncomfortable in the half court and were able to limit the Cavs to shoot just 34.8 percent from the field, including 25.0 percent from 3-point range.

The veteran trio of Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade and Jae Crowder were particularly bothered, as they shot a combined 5-of-33 (15.2 percent) from the field for a total of 13 points.

“We were just flying around and paying attention to details,” said Terry Rozier, who scored a game-high 20 points off the bench for Boston. “Our coaches had the game plan set up for us. We did our best to try and follow it and try to make it tough for them, and that’s what we did. We’re not going to have a perfect game, but we tried to make them work for every bucket they had.”

Meanwhile, Cleveland made it a point of emphasis to try to make Celtics leading scorer Kyrie Irving work for every basket he attempted. That strategy worked to an extent, as the Cavs held their former point guard to 11 points on 5-of-14 shooting, but Irving was able to respond by getting his teammates involved. Six different Celtics scored in double figures, led by Rozier, Marcus Smart (15 points) and Jayson Tatum (15 points).

“It’s unbelievable,” Irving said of the way his teammates backed him up. “I’m going to continue to exude confidence on my teammates. And they know whether it’s a 30-point night (for me), or whether it’s an 11-point night, we all need each other.”

The Celtics wanted to put together a total group effort Wednesday night to show that they can hold their ground against the defending Eastern Conference champions.

Boston had lost its only previous matchup against the Cavs, 102-99 on Opening night, but the C’s did not put a lot of stock into that game because it was an emotional night, having lost Gordon Hayward to a gruesome injury, and it was also their first regular season game together, as a mostly-new group.

The Celtics have grown so much since that season-opening defeat, and Wednesday night’s win over Cleveland was another giant step in their development.

“It was another opportunity for us to get better and challenge ourselves,” said Irving, whose Celtics, with a 31-10 record, now sit 4.5 games ahead of the Cavs in the standings. “In order to be in the same sentences with the great teams, you’ve got to play against the best and beat the best.”

The Celtics did just that Wednesday night. They beat the reigning champs of the East in convincing fashion, to further prove that they belong in the same conversation as the elite teams of the NBA.