Sunday’s result should not be read as the Celtics are fake or the Cavs are better than the Celtics or the Celtics are doomed in the playoffs, although I dearly wish for all three of those things to be true. But it seems reasonable to say that the Celtics, who’ve had the NBA’s best defense this season, present an excellent test for any opponent, especially an opponent integrating four new rotation players on the fly. And the Cavs aced the absolute hell out of this test, crushing the Celtics 121-99, in a game in which the entire fourth quarter played out as garbage time.
It’s early yet to say whether Cleveland will be a whole lot better defensively, going forward. The guys they got are, for the most part, better defensively than the guys they’ve replaced: Rodney Hood is a vastly better defensive player than Dwyane Wade; Jordan Clarkson—who is not a very good defender—is a vastly better defensive player than Isaiah Thomas; Larry Nance Jr. is a vastly better defensive player than Channing Frye; George Hill is a million billion times better a defensive player than Derrick Rose. But the Celtics are also not an especially good offensive team—they rank in the NBA’s bottom 10 in offensive efficiency—and a somewhat better test of Cleveland’s post-trade-deadline defense will come Tuesday, when the Cavs travel to Oklahoma City to face the 12th-ranked Thunder offense.
But as a look at what these new Cavs can do, man, it was mighty impressive. For starters, 121 points is the most the Celtics have given up in a game this regular season, and the 122.5 offensive rating put up by the Cavs Sunday afternoon is a full 22 points higher than what the Celtics allow per game. Every new Cavs player made their presence felt: Rodney Hood scored 15 points in 19 minutes; Jordan Clarkson scored 11 points in the second half, and 17 overall, on 11 shots; George Hill started and chipped in 12 points while switching all over the perimeter on defense; and Larry Nance Jr. did this:
It was almost jarring to watch LeBron surrounded by young guys who can run and jump and make twitchy, athletic plays. In a series of trades spread over a single afternoon the Cavs went from a slow, plodding, earthbound team to one that can put plus athletes at all five positions, without sacrificing much proficiency at either end. The Cavs now have two quick, agile bigs who can switch onto perimeter players, and they suddenly find themselves reasonably deep with wings who can do some shooting, and some slashing, and enough on-ball defending to play good minutes in multiple lineups.
Those strengths were on display in Boston; in the second and third quarters the Cavs launched 21 threes and held the Celtics to 33 percent shooting, and blew the game open to the tune of a 21-point lead. They got at least three three-point attempts from six different players, and that’s without Kevin Love, who is still out with the broken hand. The Celtics are a genuinely great defensive team, and the Cavs spent the middle quarters spinning them in circles, until the Boston crowd was finally reduced to booing the home team after Cavs buckets.
Possibly the most fun part of this, in fact, was the captive Boston crowd. Most other nights, with their team getting smoked and the game functionally over by the end of the third quarter, the home crowd would’ve streamed out of there. Today the Celtics had the Paul Pierce jersey retirement ceremony queued up for post-game entertainment, which meant restless and grumpy Celtics fans were pinned in their seats all the way to the bitter end. With nothing left to root for in the game, Celtics fans spent the fourth quarter chanting for Paul Pierce. It made for a cool scene, and also for a fun reminder that 20,000 Bostonians had to choose between missing a jersey retirement or watching LeBron’s team make mincemeat out of their beloved Celtics.
Cleveland plays six of seven at home following the All Star break, followed by a six-game road trip out west. Last season, fans had reason to expect that the Cavs at least could turn up the defensive intensity when the games mattered. This season, with so many new players, and with the defensive effort having sunken so low, the big question going forward will be whether this roster can develop the necessary chemistry to perform on that end. But Sunday’s result in Boston suggests at least that offense will continue to not be a problem.