The Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers have so far switched places this season, which made their third and final regular season match-up all the more interesting.
The Cavaliers came into the match with a 19-12 record that has them right in the mix for one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the Celtics were expected to compete for one of those spots but are instead jostling for position in the middle of the pack.
While both teams have not been spared from the NBA-wide COVID-19 outbreak that has sidelined almost 100 players in accordance with the league’s health and safety protocols, the Celtics have finally found themselves blessed with a bit of luck.
After already missing 14 games this season over two separate extended periods with a hamstring injury, Jaylen Brown has begun to regain his premier form. Against Cleveland, Brown had his finest game since October to lead Boston to a dominant 111-101 win that saw them lead for all but a few seconds of the match.
Brown dropped 34 points on 12-of-22 shooting along with five threes, six rebounds, three assists, a steal, and a block.
This marked his second consecutive 30-point game and his scoring output has increased over each of the five games that he has played in since his return.
His impressive performance helped them overcome the poor shooting night of his fellow All-Star Jayson Tatum who made just six of his 19 attempts, although he still managed a decent line with 18 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals, and a block.
The Celtics have hardly had their two stars–by far the most important players on their roster–together on the floor this season, which has partially contributed to their slow start. Now with Brown back in the fold, they have a prime opportunity, especially with several key players on opposing teams sidelined, to climb back up the standings. Currently, Al Horford, Grant Williams, and Josh Richardson are the only Celtic rotation pieces sidelined by the health and safety protocols.
Having Brown playing on this level gives them a chance to win on a nightly basis, even when Tatum has an off-night by the lofty standards that he has set, such as this game versus the Cavaliers.
This pair of young wingmen gives Boston two players who can carry a team on their own for extended stretches which is a luxury that only a few other franchises in the league also have. On the occasions that they are both in rhythm and hitting their stride, they give Boston a chance to play beyond their roster’s current potential and keep in-step with the league’s best teams.
The good days allow them to overcome their roster’s considerable flaws, most notably their lack of a natural playmaker and facilitator, while their great one can make even this team look like a potential Eastern Conference Finals contender.
The Celtics, who have won only five of their 11 games in December, are hoping that this win could spark a sustained winning run that aligns them with the offseason expectations that were bestowed upon them.
If they do find their rhythm, they may find themselves battling for position down the road with this Cleveland team that has exceeded expectations this year. They were expected to be a fringe playoff team, within the range of the lower postseason seeds and the play-in game slots, yet a six-game winning streak, which was just snapped in this loss to Boston, has catapulted them up the standings.
The absence of their leading scorer last year, Collin Sexton, with a meniscal tear that will keep him out for the season has been an unexpected boon for them. Sexton’s absence has allowed third-year point guard Darius Garland to blossom into a potential All-Star. The 22-year-old has taken command of the Cavaliers’ offense and is putting up a career-best 19.4 points, 7.3 assists, and 1.3 steals this season.
The presence of veteran guard Ricky Rubio, who was acquired in the offseason, has allowed Garland to shift back-and-forth between both guard spots which has let him to showcase the full breadth of his offensive talents.
Despite the absence of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, who have been just as important in their impressive campaign, Cleveland managed to stay within striking distance of the Celtics primarily because of Garland’s gutsy efforts. He put up 28 points on 50% shooting from the field together with six assists and three steals which is an elite statline by any standards, but slowly becoming the standard for him.
These two teams, bannered by their stars who are all still below the age of 25, represent the future of the Eastern Conference and are a major factor in the increased competitiveness on this geographic side of the league. This may have been their last meeting for the regular season, though it is safe to expect that these two teams will continue to battle over the next few years and maybe even face off deep in the postseason.
The present-day status of the league, especially with the recent COVID-19 outbreak may be murky, but these two teams carry the promise of a brighter future.