CLEVELAND - After two games in 72 hours, it’s apparent the Cavaliers are an uncomfortable matchup for the Celtics, who nearly watched the improbable happen again last night at Quicken Loans Arena.
LeBron James has been replaced by Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers are vigorously pushing back to respectability. After two frenzied fourth-quarter rallies the past three days, the Celtics certainly have gained more respect for the Cavaliers, and they were grateful to escape the Great Lakes with a 93-90 win.
An 18-point lead to begin the final period was whittled to 2 with 1:11 left, but this time the Celtics responded with strong defense and a critical jumper by Kevin Garnett to stave off what would have been another disastrous late loss.
Sunday, Irving fueled a 12-0 game-ending run and scored the winning basket in an 88-87 triumph at TD Garden. History almost repeated itself when Irving slashed to the basket for a runner off the glass to reduce the deficit to 89-87 with 1:18 left.
Sunday, the Celtics went scoreless for the final 4:25, fumbling a series of chances to score because of silly mental miscues. Last night, they stayed poised, and went to Garnett, whose 13-footer took a tour around the rim before dropping through for a 4-point lead.
The Celtics then stopped the Cavaliers on defense for the next 30 seconds after Cleveland gathered the last of its 13 offensive rebounds to extend the possession. Paul Pierce sealed the game with two free throws in the final seconds and the Celtics walked away with a lesson learned about taking a lesser opponent lightly.
“You wanted to kind of wrap it up when you have a big lead so you can rest the starters knowing that you got back-to-back [games],’’ said Pierce, who led Boston with 20 points. “But that’s the challenges of this season, when you go on the road and the calls don’t go your way. You have to finish out the game and come back tomorrow.’’
And unlike Sunday, when coach Doc Rivers rested Pierce and Avery Bradley most of the fourth quarter, that duo combined for 20 minutes in the final period.
The Cavaliers’ run began modestly with a 6-0 surge to begin the fourth quarter. After a Garnett dunk, the Cavaliers then scored 6 more to reduce the deficit to 78-71 with 6:33 left. By then, it was apparent that an easy Boston victory was out of the question. The Celtics would be pushed to the brink again.
“I thought we really played well,’’ Rivers said. “We had the one stretch in the beginning of the fourth, where we really let [Cleveland] back in it. They really turned their defensive pressure up and we really struggled getting into our sets. We’re really good when we keep the game simple and we’re really bad when we try to do too much.’’
The Celtics played brilliantly in stretches in the first three quarters, pressuring Irving to get the ball out of his hands and forcing his complements into forced shots. The Cavaliers shot 40 percent through the third quarter, with their lone savior Celtic killer Anderson Varejao, who had converted 9 of 22 field goals to that point.
Varejao again outhustled and annoyed the Celtics with his offensive rebounding. He collected 10 offensive boards, three more than the Celtics as a team, and had a career-high 20 rebounds overall to go with 20 points. The Celtics worked feverishly to get a stop, only to watch the energetic Varejao chase down a loose ball or beat a Boston big man on a putback.
“Anderson Varejao is just a pain in the butt,’’ Pierce said. “With the offensive rebounding, the way he knocks down shots and keeps balls alive. He’s probably one of the more underrated players in the NBA, how much energy he gives his ball club, and they just feed off of that.’’
Using 12 points from Ray Allen, the Celtics widened their lead to 76-58 with another dominant defensive third quarter. Allen didn’t score in the first half, but a layup 25 seconds into the third seemed to get him untracked. He followed with consecutive baskets for a 61-44 lead and then added a 3-pointer at the 2:43 mark for a 75-53 lead, the Celtics’ biggest of the game.
Yet they would score only 18 points over the next 14-plus minutes, unable to deliver the final punishing blow to a Cavaliers team with a heck of a chin. While there was a sense of relief after collecting a close road win, the Celtics weren’t exactly ecstatic.
“Me personally, I hate it,’’ Allen said. “I think about the little small things. I take it as we won, but I take it as a loss as far as getting better. When we got the lead, we did some great things. But we have to go out and do it again [tonight]. Every day we have to get better.’’Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe