BOSTON -- There was a moment toward the end of the third quarter -- the frame in which Rajon Rondo put his assist wizardry on full display, handing out nine helpers as his Boston Celtics erupted for 42 points to build a 17-point lead over the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers -- where it felt a little bit like 2010, back when the volume inside TD Garden would ascend to another level as Boston fans roared in delight while watching the Green vanquish LeBron James and his Cleveland cohort.
Some still wonder if Boston's win over the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals back in 2010 was the tipping point for James' electing to go form his own superteam in Miami, though a similar case can be made that it was James' Game 6 dominance here in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals that might have started the demise of Boston's own Big Three.
For Boston, most of the faces beyond Rondo have changed since those moments. The Celtics are entrenched in a rebuilding process with a goal of returning to thorn-in-side status for James sooner than later.
So as Rondo kissed a bank shot off the glass to punctuate Boston's third-quarter offensive outburst, there was a sense that maybe, just maybe, these Celtics were closer to making a big step forward this season than most had expected.
Alas, this chapter would end with a reminder of the gap between the two teams. Kyrie Irving lit Cleveland's fourth-quarter fuse and James refused to be denied in the final minutes while lifting the Cavaliers to a 122-121 triumph.
The Celtics, which already owned a Rondo-less win over another East power, the Chicago Bulls, earlier this month, were left to ponder how they let a 19-point lead slip away over the final 11½ minutes. Friday's game was a painful reminder of the strides this team still needs to make in order to win the close games that have routinely defied it over the past 13 months.
"One point not good enough," said Celtics second-year coach Brad Stevens. "It is what it is. There's no moral victories; we can't talk about learning. We've got to just get better. We've got to do it.
"And I think that's where we all are. We can't get frustrated with it. We can't lose sight of the fact that we're eight games in and not 70 games in, but the good news is that there is a belief growing, but it's got to be rounded out."
The frustration for the Celtics is that they are certain they're better than the 25-win team you saw last season. They are positive they're better than the team that pundits pegged for only marginal improvement this season. But the progress being made is overshadowed at the moment by the end result.