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Boston Celtics Squander Golden Opportunity Against LeBron's Cavaliers

Brian Robb@CelticsHubFeatured ColumnistNovember 15, 2014

Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo, center, threads between Cleveland Cavaliers forward Shawn Marion (31) and guard Kyrie Irving (2) on a drive to the basket during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Friday, Nov. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa/Associated Press

BOSTON—For three quarters against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night, the Boston Celtics looked like a team ready to make some noise in the NBA.

LeBron James and his new teammates seemingly had no answer for Boston’s high-octane offense over that time frame, as the hosts rattled off an eye-opening 101 points over 36 minutes, including 42 points in the third period alone.

Rajon Rondo (16 assists overall, nine in the third quarter) handled the distribution, while a well-balanced Celtics scoring attack (seven players in double figures) kept the Cavs on their heels on the defensive end of the floor. As the Celtics built a 19-point fourth-quarter lead, one couldn’t help but wonder if James was experiencing flashbacks to 2010, when Rondo and the Big Three routinely wreaked havoc against LeBron’s Cavs.

This is a far different Celtics team from those days, as Rondo is the only remaining holdover on a roster in year two of a rebuilding effort. LeBron is an improved player and a confident two-time NBA champion now who is surrounded by a host of fresh, talented faces for his second go-round in Cleveland. Both new eras were on full display in the fourth quarter.

Facing the prospect of falling under the .500 mark, James (season-high 41 points) and Kyrie Irving (15 fourth-quarter points) turned the tide against the upstart Celtics and helped the Cavs rally late for a dramatic 122-121 victory over Boston.

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For the Celtics, the late-game collapse was a missed opportunity for a serious confidence boost via a win against an NBA contender. This young team has already made bigger strides than expected throughout this season, even though that hasn’t necessarily been reflected in the team’s record (3-5). Unlike last season, the mere appearance of progress on the court isn’t enough to satisfy those inside the Celtics locker room.

“There’s no moral victories, we can’t talk about learning,” head coach Brad Stevens said after the game. “We’ve got to just get better. We’ve got to do it. And I think that that’s where we all are.  We can’t get frustrated with it, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we’re eight games in and not 70 games in, but the good news is there is a belief growing, but it’s got to be rounded out.

“You've got to play all 48. You've got to be great all 48 against this team. And it's not the same against everybody, but you still have to be on your A-game the whole time."

The setback is the second straight loss for the Celtics in which they have blown a double-digit lead. Irving sparked the Cleveland comeback with 12 points in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter, while James served as playmaker at point guard. With frisky defense slowing Boston’s offensive attack, the Cavs managed to swing a 19-point deficit into a slim lead in the game’s final minute before the Celtics had one last chance to salvage a win.

On the game’s final play, Boston inbounded the ball to Rajon Rondo from halfcourt and let the point guard operate with seven seconds remaining on the clock. After a defensive switch on a pick-and-roll, Rondo scrambled late from the top of the key and failed to get up a potential game-winning shot attempt as time expired.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

After the game, Boston’s captain accepted responsibility for the miscue.

“I lost the ball,” Rondo explained. “I give them credit. They played good defense. I lost the ball and I didn’t get the shot off in time.”

Given Rondo’s lackluster shooting throughout the night (3-of-10 from the field), the decision to give the ball to the point guard late was addressed by Stevens following the ugly finish.

“Well we had a couple of different options,” Stevens noted. “We had Jeff (Green) over the top, which I’d have to look at the film to see if he had LeBron sealed for a lob. Obviously it’s a little bit riskier of a pass, but we had just thrown it to Jared (Sullinger) and then we just had a simple swing to Rondo and our desire was to reject the screen. And he had a good matchup, but Joe Harris did a nice job on him, and we didn’t get a shot off.”

In spite of Boston’s collapse, James joined a growing list of players that have heaped plenty of positive praise on the Celtics this year for surpassing early expectations.

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

"I think they are going to surprise a lot of teams and they are better than what the critics said coming into this season," James said. "I think Coach Stevens has done a great job putting a system in there that allows everyone to feel comfortable, to feel loose and play a great style of basketball."

Rondo likes the promise he sees in this group as well. The point guard remains hopeful that the team can use the early adversity as a building block in the midst of a brutal month of November that has featured games against Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Brooklyn and the Cavs.

“We’ve been in every game this season, except for the Houston game I believe, we made a great run against Dallas but we go out every night and we play as hard as we possibly can. We’re just not coming up with the wins right now,” Rondo said.

For the players coming off a 25-win season in Boston last year, the silver linings aren’t enough. This is a competitive group with a dangerous offense that believes it can sneak into the Eastern Conference playoffs despite being in the midst of a rebuild. To achieve that goal, these Celtics know they need to fare better when it comes to the bottom line.

“We just got to win games, point blank, we just got to win,” said Jared Sullinger. “There’s no more lessons, no more moral victories, we just got to win flat out.”

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