CLEVELAND — On most nights it would be cause for celebration, or at least a sigh of relief, after holding an opponent to a 39-point first half, as the Celtics did Monday against the Cavaliers. In this case, though, there was just one problem.
“We only had 37,” coach Ime Udoka said.
Udoka said on offense his team was playing as if it was stuck in mud. It was a disconcerting start considering the Celtics had coughed up a 19-point lead against this same opponent two nights earlier. But there was still time to find a remedy.
In the locker room, Udoka showed the players six clips of their offense’s encouraging moments, primarily plays in which they had carved into the lane, drawn multiple defenders, and found teammates for open shots. They wanted more of that, and they wanted to simplify their approach. Udoka called fewer plays and pleaded for extra effort.
“Don’t settle, and attack,” he recalled telling his team. “Get downhill, and get into the paint.”
Then, on Boston’s first possession of the third quarter, Jayson Tatum rumbled upcourt, drew contact from Cavs forward Dean Wade, and converted a layup as he was fouled. The mentality had shifted, the tone was set, and the Celtics sprung back to life before it was too late, using a 61-point second half to secure an 98-92 win.
“I felt like in the second half we got more ball movement, played a little faster,” Celtics forward Al Horford said. “We didn’t quite settle. We were getting to the paint or making extra passes. Those are habits we have to continue to build and understand that we are not always going to be able to score on the first action.”
Although the offense was resuscitated, the defense never needed to be. Cleveland was held to 38.6 percent shooting and Boston took another step toward establishing a defense that could become a force as this season unfolds. Over the last seven games, Boston has surrendered just 97 points per 100 possessions. It is the top-ranked unit in the NBA over that time, 2.7 points better than the next closest team, Golden State.
“Obviously, we’re competing,” Tatum said. “I think we’re all starting to get on the same page. Now, if our offense could match our defense, we’d be in really good shape.”
Tatum, this team’s most skilled and dynamic offensive player, knows that resurgence must start with him. He is in the midst of the longest shooting slump of his career. And although he made just 2 of 11 shots outside the paint Monday, he was determined to make an impact by getting to the basket however he could.
He took seven free throws, was 4 for 6 near the rim, and finished with a team-high 23 points, perhaps giving him something to build on as the Celtics move on to Atlanta.
“It definitely felt good to see some go in,” Tatum said. “I wish some more would go in. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen soon.”
Horford added 17 points and 9 rebounds, and Dennis Schröder had 14 points, six of which came in the game’s final minutes, as Boston held off Cleveland’s late push.
The Celtics led 80-72 midway through the fourth quarter, but considering their collapse here two nights earlier, it certainly felt wobbly.
The Cavaliers pushed back behind the scorching shooting of Ricky Rubio and Cedi Osman. They connected on 3-pointers on three consecutive trips, including one in which Boston’s defense offered no resistance after an offensive rebound. Then a Darius Garland layup pulled Cleveland within 87-85 with 3:37 left.
With Boston leading, 88-87, Denzel Valentine appeared to hit a 3-pointer from the right corner, but he stepped out of bounds just before the attempt, a key break for Boston during a stretch that has seen few of them.
The Celtics were ahead, 90-89, before Schröder attacked for a layup to stretch the lead to three. After a Wade miss, Schröder pulled up for a 12-footer that made it 94-89 with 43.1 seconds left. The lead was not in danger after that.
“I just like the fact that we stayed with it,” Horford said. “We didn’t get rattled. They were making some tough shots down the stretch there and [we played] really good defense. Some calls didn’t go our way, and our group stayed poised.”
The Celtics inched back to .500, and Wednesday will have a chance at their first winning record this season when they face the Hawks. Forward Jaylen Brown, who missed his fifth consecutive game because of a strained hamstring, is unlikely to play in that contest, and center Robert Williams’s status is unclear after he left Monday’s game at halftime because of knee soreness.