Cavs trying to pinpoint & fix third quarter struggles
Gaining confidence and in search of a test, the Boston Celtics are getting one of their biggest of the season Friday night.
The surging Celtics visit the Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers for the first time since being swept in last year's playoffs.
Boston (29-22) has won 10 of 13, averaging 110.5 points after putting up 100.5 during a 6-9 stretch.
Defense was vital to the Celtics' seventh win in eight tries Wednesday, yielding 37.6 percent shooting on their way to beating Detroit 102-95.
Their attention, however, quickly turned to Cleveland (35-13), which beat them 89-77 in Boston on Dec. 15.
"They're No. 1 in the East right now, they're playing very well, so I'm interested to see how we go out and play against them," center Tyler Zeller told the team's official website. "We've got our work cut out for us, (but) we're playing well, and hopefully we can keep doing it."
The Celtics had season lows in points and field-goal percentage (32.2) in the first meeting while going 9 of 32 from 3-point range.
"I haven't seen them a lot since our game, but they handled us here," coach Brad Stevens said. "Obviously they have a few of the better players in the NBA, so it's going to be a heck of a challenge."
LeBron James is fifth in the NBA with 24.9 points per game, while Kevin Love is among the reboundings leaders with 10.6. They combined for 44 points and 15 boards in December.
James averaged 27.0 points in the playoff series, which saw Love (shoulder) get hurt in Game 4 and miss the rest of the Cavs' run to the NBA Finals.
Kyrie Irving missed this season's meeting with the Celtics recovering from knee surgery stemming from his injury in the finals. The guard has shown no lingering effects while averaging 25.0 points over the last four games.
Irving is averaging 22.9 points in 15 games against Boston, including a combined 56 in two home postseason contests.
Cleveland is trying to bounce back from Wednesday's 106-97 loss at Charlotte that ended a five-game winning streak. James, Love and Irving accounted for 61 points, but the Cavaliers were outscored 33-17 in the third quarter, two days after overcoming a 30-15 third to beat Indiana 111-106 in overtime.
They're shooting 12 of 42 during the third quarter in the last two games.
"We're (terrible) in the third quarter right now," James said. "We need to figure it out. I don't know what it is. I know coach (Tyronn Lue) and the coaching staff are trying to pinpoint what the case may be.
"We're doing a good job of playing great basketball in the first half, but our third quarters are pretty awful right now. We've got to figure that out."
The Celtics' Isaiah Thomas is averaging 12.4 points on 30.9 percent shooting over his last five regular-season meetings with the Cavs, making 3 of 15 shots in December.
Thomas' career-high 21.4 points per game is a big reason why he'll make his All-Star Game debut Feb. 14.
He's not putting too much importance on this matchup.
"It's the biggest game just because it's the next game," Thomas said. "No matter if we play Cleveland or somebody else, the next game is always the most important.
"We gotta go in there and handle business. We know it's gonna be probably a hostile environment. They're a great team, but we're not going to back down from anybody."