Anderson: We're still waiting for first real Cavs-Celtics game

Ty Anderson
January 04, 2018 - 7:43 am

David Butler II/USA Today Sports

Late in the second quarter and up by seven points, an attempted double-team on Kyrie Irving forced No. 11 to dish the ball to Al Horford. Down the lane without much resistance, Horford rose up and dunked right over the Cavaliers’ J.R. Smith.

With a scream and a pound to his own chest, Horford brought the Garden to its feet.

It was the lone exclamation point on a game that lacked sizzle, bite, and any sort of real combative energy between what everybody considers to be the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the East. (Their order in that power ranking remains beyond subjective.)

It’s my North Station-esque detour way of telling you that this game -- though it counted for just the C’s fourth win in their last 18 against the Cavs -- felt like a letdown in a strange way, and that you couldn’t blame those that vacated the loge before Gino Time.

Even Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who listed some excuses for the opposition in his postgame media session, wanted to do his part to downplay the importance of the win.

I'm not crazy when I say that it just feels that we’re all still waiting for that truly great showdown between these rivals.

But perhaps it’s our own fault for continuing to do this to ourselves.

I think we all went into the opening night showdown with hopes of a Durant-Westbrook kind of confrontation between LeBron James and the player he referred to as just “the kid.” But LeBron is too faux-friendly and borderline corporate for that to happen, and Kyrie is too -- uh, Kyrie -- to let confrontation distract him from basketball.

No biggie. That was just the first of four meetings between these teams. So our attention turned to Wednesday.

This was the game that the polarizing Isaiah Thomas was supposed to be back for. He was supposed to come into the Garden with the swagger you loved for two and a half years, and force you to absolutely hate it and him as he dropped 30-plus on the Celtics. But after making his season debut the night before, and obviously without clearance to play in back-to-back games just yet, Thomas went back to his role as an in-uniform assistant coach/cheerleader for Cleveland head coach Ty Lue’s squad.

Fine. This was at least going to be the game where Irving, who came so close to getting his ‘revenge’ when these teams first met in October, was going to get right back in LeBron’s face and actually make the shot this time around. But despite a season-high nine rebounds, Irving made just five of his 14 shots and totaled 11 points in a 28-minute outing. It was one of his quieter nights as a Celtic, too, which seems bizarrely out of character given the resume he’s already built in just three and a half months as a Celtic. 11-point and nine-rebound nights usually don’t garner “MVP” chants. Ask these guys.

Kevin Love, who had the audacity to complain about not getting calls on a night that saw him shoot a ridiculously garbage 1-for-11 from the field, was beyond horrible. Honestly, he makes me want to thank Rajon Rondo for (probably) slapping a Fenway Frank out of his hand when he allegedly tried to sell Love on Boston a month before he was traded to the Cavaliers. The box score tells me that Dwayne Wade played, but I swear I don’t remember seeing him out there once, and I truly hope we can all stop pretending to care when he signs somewhere new next season. Even James looked every bit like a 33-year-old that’s played the second-most minutes in the NBA this season. Or that all 1,414 of those minutes came in a 273-overtime game the night before, anyway. 

And James, who has always seemed to relish opportunities to shine in Boston, was eerily quiet and undoubtedly appeared to revert back to his classic ‘shut it down’ ways, too.

“I don’t know who we are and who we can be until we get I.T. back consistently,” James, whose team is also playing without Iman Shumpert and Derrick Rose, admitted.

The Celtics, for what it’s worth, are not operating at 100 percent either. It’s been moaned about to death, but Gordon Hayward remains unavailable, and barring some Deadpool self-healing abilities, is unlikely to re-emerge as a major factor this season. This is something that the Celtics have largely found a way to ‘manage’ -- they’re 31-10 this year, so what more could you really want? -- but there’s no doubt that Hayward was targeted as the key piece to put the Celtics ahead of the Cavaliers in the East.

This is a season series that’s lacked some of its stars, and the stars that have played have been … well… underwhelming and out-gunned by the likes of Terry Rozier.

So whether this was the second night of a back-to-back or not, and despite a win-loss record confirming they’re still among the NBA elite, the Cavs looked beyond incomplete on Wednesday. Much like how the Celtics, who were an entirely new group and without their projected top scorer, looked like a disjointed mess in the first meeting in October.  

And in turn, these games have seemed incomplete, and almost feel like they don't matter the way they should. 

“It doesn’t,” Lue said when asked if the widening gap between the C’s and Cavaliers, at least in the standings, concerns him. “As long as we make the playoffs we’re fine.”

Lue’s right: Right now, and as last year’s regular season and subsequent playoff results told you, it doesn’t matter.

But it’d be nice if it could feel like it at some point between now and then.

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