The Boston Celtics matched their season-high four-game losing streak by falling to the Cleveland Cavaliers, 95-90.
Kyrie Irving completely embarrassed everyone the Celtics threw at him, and the scary part was that he essentially took the entire second and third quarters off. After exploding against the lazy defense of Rajon Rondo for 19 first-quarter points, Irving coasted until the fourth quarter, when he re-ignited for a stunning stretch run.
He finished with 40 points on 16-of-24 shooting.
Celtic apologists might argue that Rondo and Avery Bradley slowed Irving down during the middle portion of this one, but anyone watching would know that Irving's lull was solely self-induced. No Boston player could handle him.
As a team, the Celtics surrendered 46 points in the paint and turned the ball over 16 times, both of which were indicators of fatigue and age. Boston just looked a step slow, especially in the game's late stages.
Rondo led the C's with 17 points and 13 boards, but the team's 38 percent shooting and lack of bench production was just too much to overcome.
Boston fell to 20-21 in defeat, and things won't get any easier with the New York Knicks on deck Jan. 24. That's looking ahead, though.
For now, let's get to the ugly grades for Boston's loss to the lowly Cavs.
Rajon Rondo: C+
As usual, Rajon Rondo filled up the stat sheet against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Unfortunately, the other area of his game that remained consistent was his pathetic effort on defense.
Many still regard Rondo as a good defender, thanks largely to the hefty steal totals he puts up. But don't be misled by the 1.9 thefts per game his gambling style produces; the guy has pretty much stopped playing defense this season.
Case in point: Rondo spent the majority of the first quarter trying (and failing) to stay within sniffing distance of Kyrie Irving. The Cavs' dynamic point guard completely lost Rondo on virtually every pick, shot over him and generally exploited Rondo's half-hearted effort on D.
Irving scored 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting in the period.
Overall, Boston's point guard finished with 17 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists on 7-of-17 shooting, but the biggest story of his night was the torching he suffered at the hands of Irving.
The standout moment for Rondo may have been his decision to run down an errant pass and save it under his own basket by inexplicably throwing it back inbounds...to a waiting Irving. The ensuing uncontested layup gave the Cavs a three-point lead with less than two minutes left.
The numbers were there for Rondo, but his combination of terrible defense and questionable decisions down the stretch prevent him from getting a high mark.
There are two ends to the court, Rajon. We suggest you play both of them.
Avery Bradley: D+
Avery Bradley went the opposite route of Rajon Rondo in his attempt to contain Kyrie Irving. Instead of simply letting Cleveland's young stud run around the court unimpeded, he tried to body him up.
That earned him three fouls and an abbreviated 11 minutes during the first half.
After the break, Bradley hit a pair of threes, but did little else. And while you might assume that he slowed down the Cavs point guard in the second half, Irving really just took his foot off the gas for a long stretch before taking over in the fourth.
By that point, Doc Rivers had gone back to Rondo as the primary sacrificial lamb for Irving.
If Bradley's not locking down opposing wings and can't score in double figures, it's hard to understand all the fuss over his potentially transformative effect on the Celtics. He finished with seven points, one assist and one rebound.
He did have a nice chase-down block on a Dion Waiters dunk attempt, though. So there's that.
Paul Pierce: C-
Paul Pierce came into the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in a bit of a scoring rut. Over his last five games, the Boston Celtics' 14-year veteran had been averaging just 11.8 points per game on 37 percent shooting.
Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there for No. 34.
Pierce made just 3-of-15 shots against the Cavs, and many of his misses were of the embarrassing air-ball variety. He struggled to find open space against some pretty sub-par Cleveland defenders and turned the ball over four times as he fought to make something happen on offense.
The effort was there, as Pierce battled for 37 minutes and put up seven assists and seven rebounds. But overall, his struggles continued.
Brandon Bass: D+
When your only "highlights" are open mid-range jumpers, it's pretty easy to fade into the background. The Boston Celtics simply don't involve Brandon Bass in any of their sets, opting instead to use him as something of an outlet on broken plays or dwindling shot-clock situations.
In short, it's hard to figure out what value he really has on offense.
On the other end, Bass allowed the incredibly right-handed Tristan Thompson to get to his preferred hand on more than one occasion. That happened despite audible yells from other Celtic teammates of "left, left, left!"
The scouting report on Thompson is apparently very widely known, but Bass couldn't be bothered to execute it consistently.
Even though Jared Sullinger has some pretty glaring flaws on defense (which we'll get to later), there's not much of a case to be made for continuing to play Bass ahead of the rookie. Boston's power forward finished with just eight points and six rebounds in 28 minutes.
Kevin Garnett: B-
It doesn't matter how old Kevin Garnett gets; he'll always be a spectacular help defender. While the rest of the Boston Celtics stood around and watched the Cleveland Cavalier guards penetrate at will, Garnett shuffled across the lane and put himself into optimal position time after time.
Similarly, KG was the only Celtic big to disrupt Cleveland's surprisingly good interior passing. He even had five blocks, including an out-of-nowhere swat of a weak Tristan Thompson offering on the left baseline.
KG could certainly have provided more offense against the Cavs' underwhelming frontcourt defenders, but he stowed away an early aggressive streak after his jumpers stopped falling in the second quarter. On the night, Garnett totaled 16 points, five rebounds and three assists on 5-of-13 shooting, but he was essentially an offensive nonfactor after halftime.
Because of his solid defense, we're excusing KG's disappearance on the offensive end. He sneaks away from this game with a slightly above-average mark.
Jared Sullinger: B
Jared Sullinger did a fantastic job on the glass in this one, and his five offensive pulls helped offset his horrendous work on defense. To be fair, every Celtic defender struggled to shut the lane down against the Cavaliers, but Sullinger looked especially flummoxed by the Cavs' deft interior passing.
A little foul trouble limited the rookie's minutes, but he was easily Boston's most effective reserve.
Going forward, if Sullinger can limit a few needless fouls and continue to learn the nuances of team defense, he'll keep eating into Brandon Bass' minutes at the 4.
Sully finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds in just 26 minutes.
Bench Grade: C-
Doc Rivers used a total of four reserves in this one, and other than Jared Sullinger, who we already covered, nobody made a particularly large impact on the game.
Courtney Lee hit 3-of-5 threes, but made just 3-of-9 shots overall. And his defense—a big reason the Celtics brought him in over the summer—left something to be desired.
Let's put it this way: When guys like Alonzo Gee are spinning past you in the post and forcing you to foul them to prevent a dunk, you're not playing the greatest defense.
Other than that, Jason Terry and Jeff Green each played more than 20 minutes, but contributed a total of nine points on the evening. Terry looked as though he was struggling to find a niche on offense. Considering his defensive shortcomings, if Terry's not putting up solid point totals, there's little reason for him to log minutes at all.
The Celtics' four-game slide can actually be attributed to the bench in some ways. Sure, the starters have played poorly, but with an aging core, the bench's inability to play productive minutes is only taxing the starters more heavily.
Doc Rivers has nowhere to go in relief of the obviously exhausted Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and that's a problem.