The Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics both entered Thursday night's showdown with cause to celebrate. The Cavs had a conference-best 23-7 record that included a Christmas Day comeback victory over the Warriors; the Celts had won 6 of their last 7, and their sparkplug point guard, Isaiah Thomas, won the East's player of the week award. With Cleveland a little bit injury-hobbled—J.R. Smith just started a three-month absence following thumb surgery—and Boston newly healthy, the matchup looked like a chance for the challengers to measure themselves against the defending champs.
It turned out to be just that. The Celtics hung tough the entire evening, coming back from multiple double-digit deficits to make the Cavaliers work. They played the kind of basketball that so endears them to observers of the NBA's middle class: well-drilled, clever, collaborative. Pick-and-rolls on one side of the floor coincided with pin-downs and flare-screens on the other, kaleidoscopic actions resolving in open threes. Thomas put his shifty game on display, and Avery Bradley harangued Cleveland dribblers on one end and drove hard on the other. It was an impressive effort, and as Boston cut a 17-point fourth-quarter gap to a single point in the final minutes, it bordered on inspirational.
But: Boston has Thomas and Bradley and Al Horford, fine players all, meanwhile Cleveland has LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. While the Cavs were building their early leads, their stars displayed the kind of ho-hum brilliance we expect. James lasered crosscourt assists, soared down the lane, and twice chased down Bradley to snuff dunk attempts, and Irving shook most of the Celtics out of their shoes and tossed in layups from every possible angle (and some impossible ones). Midway through third quarter, Irving turned Kelly Olynyk's knees into silly putty on a drive; a half-minute later, James bullied Bradley on the block and dropped a finger-roll over his noggin. That was the game in Cliff Notes.
When Boston came back in the fourth—due partly to their lack of quit and partly to a turnover-laden Cleveland frame that had James grading himself an "F"—the Cavaliers had the expected answers. Four times the Celtics pulled within one, and four times either James or Irving responded, letting the Cavs escape with a six-point win. It was a clarifying end to what had become a sloppy game: the Celtics can have all the gumption they like, but certain basketball truths still hold.
"We're not on Cleveland's level, so we got work to do," Thomas said after the loss. "We gotta figure it out." The first part of that statement is true, the second wishful thinking. Barring disaster, the Cavaliers will be the Eastern Conference's representatives again in June. Other teams will mount little charges between now and then, distracting from that fact, but they'll eventually have to play Cleveland, as Boston did on Thursday, and confirm it.