BOSTON — It turned out Paul Pierce did have to share his number retirement night.
But it wasn’t with an Isaiah Thomas tribute, or another uplifting Celtics win over the defending Eastern Champions.
He shared it with one of Boston’s worst performances of the season.
A 121-99 loss to the new-look Cavaliers on Sunday afternoon at TD Garden underscored two things: That the Celtics are anything but a lock to emerge from the East, and the Cavaliers are more dangerous than they were last month, when they put up a mere 88 points in a listless loss in TD Garden.
“I think they just dominated the game,” coach Brad Stevens said afterwards. “I mean, I don’t think there was any one area. I thought it was pretty much they dominated the game.”
Playing with four new players acquired in a trio of Thursday trades at the deadline, the Cavaliers broke things open in the second quarter and extended their lead in the third before coasting through the fourth.
Those four new faces totaled a combined 49 points, led by Jordan Clarkson’s 17, which was buffeted by 15 from Rodney Hood, 12 from George Hill, who got the start, and five from Larry Nance Jr.
Compare that to the Celtics getting just 18 total points from its trio of swingmen — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Semi Ojeleye — who combined to shoot 7-for-25 in 83 total minutes. It was the kind of night that shone a spotlight on Gordon Hayward’s absence.
The 22-point loss was Boston’s second worst of the season, behind a 23-point loss to the Bulls on Dec. 11, and was only the Celtics’ third 20-point loss of the season.
Boston’s defense, like Ray Allen, was conspicuously absent all night. Cleveland shot 53.6 percent from the floor and 53.3 percent on 3-pointers, but the most notable difference from a month ago was the athleticism and length of the new second unit, which featured Clarkson, Hood and Nance Jr. alongside Kyle Korver and Jeff Green. That five-some scored 50 points.
“Yeah, we stunk,” Stevens said when asked about his team’s defense. “But they were really good. They had a lot to do with that.”
Irving said the Cavaliers made several adjustments in the way they defended Boston, which could also be seen as a slight dig at Thomas, who lamented Cleveland’s inability to adjust just 24 hours before he was shipped to Los Angeles.
“Over these last three games they’ve made some adjustments from the last time we played them, on our pick and rolls, one some of our plays,” he said after scoring 18 points, 16 of which came in the first half. “As we go forward I think we can constantly learn from not only a game like tonight, but the last few games with playing the high-intense teams of the Eastern Conference, where we’ve been tested. I have a lot to learn. I think that we, as a team, do as well.”
The Celtics have now lost three out of four, all to teams in the top six in the Eastern Conference. They were eviscerated by the Raptors on Tuesday, beat the Wizards on Thursday and a comeback against the Pacers fell short on Friday night.
As the rest of the league learns how to take on the Celtics, they’ll have to learn to counter-punch. Tatum barely resembles the player who opened the year as a deadly 3-point shooter and fearsome dunker. The league has learned not to leave him open, to force him to put the ball on the floor, and now it’s his turn to prove he’s adaptable, which he did once already in adjusting his game from iso-heavy Duke sets to corner 3s and transition finishes to start this season in Boston.
And of course there was LeBron James, who missed his second-straight triple-double by two rebounds (24 points, eight boards, 10 assists) and has looked rejuvenated in the two games since the trade deadline.
An invigorated LeBron, a dangerous second unit and a playoff landscape that features dangerous teams in Toronto, Washington and even Milwaukee and Indiana has the Celtics searching for answers.
Luckily for them, the All-Star break is arriving soon, which will provide an opportunity to regroup, reconsider and refresh.
“It’s just great when you’ve got a chance to go through this as a young group,” said Irving, always one for a positive outlook. “(This stretch) before the All-Star break, it’s going to test a lot of us. I’m looking forward to how we respond.”
Follow Brendan Kurie on Twitter @BrendanKurieSCT