CLEVELAND — The Celtics were fully aware of Kyrie Irving’s prowess. They were punished by it last season at TD Garden. The best way to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers is to keep them at a healthy distance and not allow Irving to create his fourth-quarter magic.
As has been their pattern all season, the Celtics on Tuesday night decided to challenge conventional wisdom and test logic. They were unable to pull away from their upstart opponent, leaving Irving a juicy opportunity to win the game on his own.
By far the Cavaliers’ best player, Irving snatched the game from the Celtics, scoring 15 points in the fourth quarter, 11 in the final 2:31, as Boston again collapsed against a team with a losing record in dropping a 95-90 decision at Quicken Loans Arena.
And following their latest breakdown, their fourth straight loss, the Celtics now have joined that fraternity of teams with losing records. That six-game winning streak is as dated as their hopes of earning the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Halfway into the season, the Celtics are still in search of an identity. They were challenged by their coach after Sunday’s listless 103-88 loss to the Detroit Pistons, as Doc Rivers threatened trades and roster changes. Still, that did little to motivate his club.
They allowed Irving to score 40 points. And after slowly gaining control late in the third quarter, they reverted again to their unfocused selves, coughing up an 81-78 lead with 5:23 left because they couldn’t defend Irving.
“In the fourth quarter, we didn’t get much better offensively and Kyrie Irving happened,” Rivers said. “He made some tough shots but we couldn’t convert. Offensively we have those flat periods . . . when we are good when we have those flat periods we get stops. Right now we’re not when we have droughts.”
The Celtics were 11 for 41 in the second half for 37 points and had 11 turnovers. Rajon Rondo nearly collected a triple-double (17 points, 13 rebounds, 8 assists), but his five second-half turnovers were costly. In a key sequence, Kevin Garnett missed a jumper and the ball was slapped down to the Cavaliers’ side of the court.
Instead of eating it and giving his club a chance for a defensive stop, Rondo tried firing the ball off an approaching Irving’s legs.
Irving scooped up Rondo’s fastball like a shortstop and twisted to the basket for a layup and an 86-83 lead with 2:05 left.
“I tried to make a play and he made a better play,” Rondo said.
While Rivers openly questioned Rondo’s decision to save a possession, he was more infuriated that none of the other Celtics ran down the court to defend Irving. They stood and watched.
“Obviously you don’t throw the ball to Kyrie, but my question to our team was, ‘Where was everyone else?’ ” Rivers said. “Rondo ran from under the basket to under the basket and when he saved the ball there was no one to save it to. No one was there. Right now, we’re just [mentally] not there for 48 minutes. Today was better than Detroit, I guess that’s the positive.”
And now the Celtics play the Knicks, Hawks, and Heat, perhaps with their season and their current roster at stake.
“When you’re in a funk, you try to throw a ball off a guy, he catches it,” Rivers said. “That’s what happens. You gotta make your own breaks. We’re gonna have to make ours.”
The Celtics overcame a 19-point first quarter from Irving and a 12-point second quarter from Tristan Thompson and forged ahead, 70-63, after Brandon Bass’s jumper with 3:16 left in the third quarter. The Cavaliers shot 27.3 percent in the third but managed to even the game at 70 when the Celtics went scoreless for 3:15.
Courtney Lee’s 3-pointer with 0.2 seconds left gave Boston a 3-point lead heading to the fourth quarter.
But the Celtics grew colder from the field in the fourth, with Garnett and Paul Pierce a combined 1-for-11 with 8 points.
Irving began his barrage with a 12-foot baseline jumper over the outstretched arm of Avery Bradley to reduce the Celtics’ lead to 81-80. He later converted a reverse layup off a Rondo turnover, then followed with another darting layup for a 3-point lead. Finally, with the Celtics down 1 and desperately needing a stop, Irving gave Cleveland a 90-87 lead with a one-handed, scoop layup with 52.9 seconds left. He capped the evening with a conventional 3-point play with 22.8 seconds left to seal it.
The Celtics had no response.
For a team playing with the threat of potential trades and roster moves, the Celtics came out passive offensively, which was the perfect opportunity for Irving to burn the combination of Rondo and Bradley in the early going.
Irving, whose father Drederick was a standout at Boston University, scored those 19 points in the first quarter on 8-for-10 shooting, picking apart Rondo and getting Bradley into early foul trouble. Irving has flourished against the Celtics in his brief career, and they had no answer for his quickness and ability to orchestrate the pick-and-roll.
After the game, Rivers made it known that he voted for Irving as an All-Star reserve.
“I was just trying to get a win,” Irving said. “We desperately needed it. We just wanted to prove that we can get a win against a good team. Last time they kind of handed it to us in Boston, so it was more of a statement game for the Cavaliers than me.”Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.