CLEVELAND — What the Celtics are discovering as the regular season nears its end is, while some teams are shutting down ailing players and others are coming down with disturbing cases of apathy, they are not relenting to their own adverse situation.
They entered Saturday night’s game with the Cleveland Cavaliers with eight healthy players, and coach Brad Stevens’s rotation included two rookies and two NBA Development League players. Coming off an impressive but exhausting home victory against the Charlotte Bobcats on Friday, the Celtics had every reason to succumb to their difficult circumstances.
But the team’s youth proved an advantage. Kelly Olynyk and Phil Pressey relished their opportunity for more minutes. Their energy and production, along with a sparkling shooting night from Avery Bradley, resulted in one of the most convincing victories of the season, 111-99, at Quicken Loans Arena.
Olynyk scored 20 first-half points and tied his career high with 25. Pressey matched his 13-assist output from Friday, while Bradley’s smooth stroke was good for 25 points and five 3-pointers.
The Cavaliers, clearly the more talented team on paper, looked lethargic and uninterested. They fell behind by as many as 33 and when Cleveland attempted to make it respectable with a 41-point fourth quarter, their cornerstone backcourt of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters was on the bench.
Stevens had no option to rest his starters. With Rajon Rondo, Kris Humphries, Jared Sullinger, and Jerryd Bayless all out with injuries, the Celtics had no depth. Six of the team’s 15 players were unavailable because of injury.
Still, the Celtics raced out to an early lead and led for the final 46:48, using brilliant stretches by Olynyk and Bradley while Jeff Green and Brandon Bass contributed 19 points apiece. In a season of upheaval, Stevens expressed pride in how his club has refused to relent.
“You’ve got a bunch of guys out there and a lot of those guys are contracted for the future,” Stevens said. “It’s good that they played well. It’s good that they grow and learn and feel better about themselves.”
The victory snapped a 13-game road losing streak and was Boston’s first win away from TD Garden since Feb. 10 at Milwaukee. The win also marked the first consecutive wins for the Celtics since March 7 and 9.
While a portion of their fan base is rooting for losses to improve their draft lottery chances, the team’s youth is more focused on making an impression for the future, especially Pressey, who is trying to cement his position as the team’s reserve point guard.
“It’s not much I can say about that,” said Pressey, referring to those who cheer for losses. “People want us to lose to get the lottery pick but when we’re on that court, we’re trying to win. It’s kind of hard to tell us to lose a game. I’ve never tried to do that and I won’t do it. I’m going to try to win every game when I’m put on that court. That’s all I can do.”
Bradley was 9 for 15 from the field and 5 for 6 from 3-point range as the Celtics hit 12 3-pointers overall. A Chris Johnson dunk with 6:12 left gave the Celtics a 107-77 lead and that’s when they decided to revert to their fourth-quarter woes.
The Cavaliers responded with a 17-0 run over the next 3:58 to make matters slightly interesting before the Celtics held on.
Olynyk looked on his way to a brilliant night with his 20 first-half points, but he was 2-for-10 shooting in the second half and missed several chances at setting a career high.
“I was definitely comfortable out there tonight,” he said. “I like to be able to have the ball in my hands and make a play off the dribble every once in a while and put it on the floor, create for some other people and move the ball.”