BOSTON — One by one, the Boston Celtics lined up to embrace Isaiah Thomas.
The next time they see their former teammate, he probably won’t be in a hoodie after watching the game from the bench.
And it won’t be so easy.
Terry Rozier scored 20 points in 20 minutes, stealing the spotlight from Thomas, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in a rematch of the Eastern Conference finals and leading the Celtics to a 102-88 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night.
Thomas received a standing ovation from the Boston fans but did not play one night after making his season debut in a return from a hip injury. Rozier made sure to pay his respects, and Thomas told the third-year Celtics guard he was proud of him.
“When I first came in the league, that’s a guy that I watched a lot. The little things he did on and off the court. Like a big brother to me,” Rozier said. “Just to hear those words from him, I’m happy that he’s on his way back — so I can guard him in February.”
Rozier scored the last eight Boston points of the first quarter to give the Celtics an 11-point lead, and had another eight in a row midway through the fourth when they expanded the lead to 21. Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum had 15 points apiece, and Irving and Al Horford each had 11 points and nine rebounds to help Boston to its fourth straight win.
James had 19 points, seven rebounds and six assists on 8-for-15 shooting — the only starter to make more than half of his shots on a team that scored a season-low 88 points.
“Against LeBron, there’s nobody that can guard him the whole game. So you have to throw as many bodies at him as you can,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “And then pray.”
Tristan Thompson had 10 points and 10 rebounds for Cleveland, which lost for the fourth time in five games. Playing on back-to-back nights — the Celtics had been preparing for them since New Year’s Eve — Cleveland shot 34.8 percent.
It was the first time the teams had played since the season opener, when top Boston free-agent Gordon Hayward broke his leg in a gruesome injury that reshuffled the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Celtics finished with the top seed last year, but lost in the conference finals to Cleveland.
And so much has happened since then.
Thomas was traded for Irving, then missed the first 36 games of the season with a hip injury before making his season debut on Tuesday night. In that time, he stewed over his departure from Boston, where he developed into an All-Star and fan favorite.
“I don’t know who we are or who we can be until we get I.T. back consistently,” James said. “Until we get a full dosage of I.T. … we’re trying to figure things out. But we’ll be fine.”
The Celtics scored seven straight points midway through the first quarter to turn a one-point deficit into a 15-9 lead. They ran off the last five points of the quarter — all by Rozier — on a tip-in and a 27-foot 3-pointer just before the buzzer that made it 32-21.
With the Cavaliers double-teaming their longtime point guard for much of the game, Irving was held under 20 points for the first time since Dec. 10, a span of 11 games.
“Every time he gets doubled, I’m thinking of ways I can help him out, scoring,” Rozier said. “He opened up the game for a lot of us.”
Thomas made his first appearance at the new Boston Garden since the trade, but he did not play. Although he had expressed shock at the trade and held a grudge toward Danny Ainge, who orchestrated it, the relationship between him and the Boston fans remains unblemished. (Thomas also said on Wednesday that he had mended fences with Ainge .)
Thomas, who asked the Celtics not to play a video tribute, saying he would prefer to be honored when he was actually playing, got a cheer from the crowd when he joined his teammates on the bench late in the first quarter and made a brief appearance on the video board.
At the break, cameras again showed Thomas. And this time, the crowd rose to its feet for a standing ovation. The Cavs guard pounded his heart three times, smiled and gave a little wave before returning to his seat for the start of the second quarter.
Thomas said he has a long way to go before he feels like himself on the court. But after his seven-month absence, he said playing Tuesday night against Portland was one of the most special moments of his career.
“There’s still movements that I’m scared to do. But it’s just because I’ve been out for so long,” he said. “For the most part when you get hurt the mental part is the toughest part. My wind isn’t there. I’m not in that good of a shape. Obviously my game isn’t where I want it to be, but it showed a positive step in the right direction that I’m not far where I want to be.”
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