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cavaliers 102, celtics 94

Celtics bound for play-in tournament, and other observations from loss to Cavaliers

In his return to Cleveland, Tristan Thompson (left), who played his first nine seasons with the Cavaliers, guards Collin Sexton Wednesday night.
In his return to Cleveland, Tristan Thompson (left), who played his first nine seasons with the Cavaliers, guards Collin Sexton Wednesday night.Tony Dejak/Associated Press

The Celtics entered Wednesday night’s game against the Cavaliers with a flickering hope of avoiding the play-in tournament. Boston would need to win its last three games while the Knicks lost their last three, an unlikely but not impossible task.

But then Celtics starters Marcus Smart (calf), Kemba Walker (knee management), and Robert Williams (turf toe) were ruled out in Cleveland, joining Jaylen Brown, who is lost for the year with a wrist injury. And when the remaining Celtics took the court against this hapless Cleveland team, they seemed to understand the direction in which their season has headed.

The Cavaliers, who had lost 11 games in a row, stayed in control for most of their 102-94 win, cementing Boston’s place in the play-in tournament and dropping the Celtics’ record back to .500. If there is a silver lining in this result, it is that the team no longer needs to treat these next two games as if they actually matter. There will be chances to rest and regroup and try to figure out how to go on an improbable postseason run.

“Guys understand it’s pretty simple right now,” Celtics center Tristan Thompson said. “We have the play-in tournament, and however the thing is structured, we have to win a game and all that other [stuff] they have going on. We have to understand this is for all the marbles and there’s no redo. We can’t get the season back. Whatever is in front of us we have to attack.”

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Boston will most likely be the No. 7 seed in the play-in tournament and play host to the No. 8 seed, either the Hornets or Pacers. The winner of that game will be the No. 7 seed in the playoffs, and the loser will play the winner of the 9/10 game for the right to be the No. 8 seed. It’s not the path the Celtics ever imagined, but it’s the path they’ve taken.

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On Wednesday, Jayson Tatum had 29 points and eight rebounds to lead the Celtics, who made just 35.6 percent of their shots and 29.3 percent of their 3-pointers. Cavaliers veteran Kevin Love, who’d reached the 20-point mark just once all year, recaptured his All-Star form for one night, with 30 points and 14 rebounds.

Observations from the game:

▪ The Celtics’ odds of avoiding the play-in tournament would have remained slim even with a win over Cleveland, but coach Brad Stevens insisted before the game that Smart, Williams, and Walker would have played if they had been available.

But now that the path is more certain, it will likely change the approach a bit over the final two games. The Celtics play the Timberwolves on Saturday before facing the Knicks on Sunday, and Stevens hinted that rest will be factored in, especially with the play-in game scheduled for Tuesday.

“We’ve got to look at it now and figure out what the best mode of attack is,” Stevens said. “I’ve never been through this from the standpoint of a play-in tourney and the quick turnaround, so we do have to be mindful of that on our higher-minute players.”

▪ Brown posted a picture on Twitter on Wednesday night in which he gave a thumbs-up with his right hand while his left arm sat in a sling. Stevens confirmed after the game that the All-Star forward had successful surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left wrist.

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“It went well,” Stevens said. “Every report out of the surgery is very positive.”

▪ Thompson played with Love in Cleveland for several years and has seen his game evolve into a more perimeter-focused attack. Before the game, Stevens even reminded the Celtics that about 70 percent of Love’s shots are 3-pointers, but Boston had issues providing resistance anyway. Love connected on 6 of 9 shots from beyond the arc, and most of them were not tightly guarded.

“There’s a lot of times we weren’t switching [on screens] or guys weren’t sure,” Thompson said. “I always say, communication clears up a lot of holes in your defense, and if we’re not talking out there, especially in those 1-4 pick-and-rolls and 2-4 pick-and-rolls, it’s going to be tough with a guy like [Love].

Jayson Tatum finished with a team-high 29 points for the Celtics Wednesday night.
Jayson Tatum finished with a team-high 29 points for the Celtics Wednesday night.Tony Dejak/Associated Press

▪ No, there was no reason to adjust your television. That really was Anderson Varejao playing center for the Cavaliers. The 13-year NBA veteran had been out of the league since the end of the 2016-17 season before signing a 10-day deal with Cleveland last week, giving him one last hurrah with his former team. It had been two years since Varejao, 38, last played a professional basketball game of any kind. But he had 4 points and two rebounds during a three-minute first-half stint.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.