The Boston Celtics won't find much to cling to after fumbling away an 18-point, first-quarter lead Saturday night during a 120-103 loss to the Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena that snapped a five-game winning streak.
Boston was atrocious defensively (a cringeworthy defensive rating of 123.8), compounding turnovers by allowing the Cavaliers to generate easy buckets (14 giveaways leading to 29 points), and matched their season low in assists (17) because of an offense that went stagnant and generated only seven second-half assists.
Maybe the best news of the night for Boston: The Brooklyn Nets, whose unprotected first-round pick the Celtics will receive in June, elected to rest starters Thaddeus Young and Brook Lopez during a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Brooklyn had surged to within a game of Minnesota heading into the tilt, but now there's two games of separation with 19 games to play in the regular season, and the Nets still own the fourth-worst record in the NBA.
After feasting on lesser competition at times in recent weeks with help from a home-heavy schedule, the Celtics crumbled against Cleveland despite their fast start. Boston seemed frustrated at times by both the Cavaliers' quick comeback and the whistles going against the visitors during the middle quarters. If stealing a victory in Cleveland this February gave the Celtics a bit of confidence heading into the game, Saturday's loss brought Boston back down a bit. Consider it a reminder of why holding onto the No. 3 seed -- and avoiding the Cavs as long as possible -- could be a potential benefit for the Celtics.
Here's one other silver lining for Boston: Isaiah Thomas, who had been bottled up pretty tightly by the Cavaliers since joining the Celtics, particularly in last season's playoff series, had an encouraging offensive performance Saturday. Thomas put up 27 points on 9-of-15 shooting over 34 minutes. He made 4 of 6 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc and added four assists. The point guard was a team-best plus-4 in plus/minus on a night when fellow backcourt partner Avery Bradley was a team-worst minus-18 (due in part to the struggles of Boston's second unit, with which Bradley spent extended time).
Thomas took advantage of open looks from the perimeter -- even if one of his more notable makes was a ceiling-scraping rainbow over LeBron James during Boston's first-quarter eruption -- but he really thrived while probing the paint off high pick-and-rolls. The 5-foot-9 Thomas showed little fear going at the basket, even with 7-foot-1 Timofey Mozgov contesting most of his attempts near the basket.
Thomas, who averaged 17.5 points on 33.3 percent shooting during that playoff series against the Cavaliers, said from the start of the season that part of his offseason inspiration was finding a way to ensure that no team could shut him down as the Cavs did last season.
Thomas' probing also led to some quality assists. In one sequence, he drove from the left side, got Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson chasing him, then wrapped a pretty feed to Jared Sullinger on the baseline for a layup. On another spinning drive through the lane in the second half, Thomas encountered traffic and kicked to an open Jae Crowder in the corner for a 3-pointer.
In three games in March, Thomas is averaging 29.7 points on 58 percent shooting overall and he's connected on 52.9 percent of his 3-point attempts. You can add in 4.7 assists per game and -- here's maybe the craziest part of his stat line -- Thomas doesn't have a single turnover in 100 minutes of floor time in those games.
"I’m just in attack mode right now, for the most part," Thomas said after Friday's victory over the New York Knicks. "I feel like, when I’m in attack mode and very aggressive, not just to score, but to get in the paint and make things happen, it feeds all my teammates, it rubs off on them, and I just have to continue to have that mindset each and every night."
Even as the Celtics have shown signs of being a more consistent offensive team during their recent surge, they need that attacking, fearless Thomas to truly have a shot at making noise -- and having any chance of seeing the Cavaliers again -- in the postseason.