The Celtics owned a comfortable double-digit lead for most of the second half of their game against the Cavaliers Wednesday. But that has meant little in this series this season.
Earlier this year, Cleveland twice clawed back from double-digit deficits and grabbed overtime wins against Boston. This one never appeared to be in great danger, but it had to at least be on the Celtics’ minds.
Cleveland’s late rally arrived, with the Celtics’ 21-point third-quarter lead whittled to 4 in the final minute. But there was never enough time for it to become a substantial concern. The Celtics held on for a 117-113 win.
In addition to toppling this Cavaliers team that could become a second-round playoff opponent, the Celtics cleaned up minor issues before they could fester. After going 9 for 42 from the 3-point line in Monday’s loss to the Knicks, they connected on 16 of 32.
Coach Joe Mazzulla often preaches about how the team’s offensive spacing is critical because congestion causes issues at the other end of the floor, too, with opponents roaring back against an unsettled defense. On Wednesday, the Celtics were urgent and unselfish, routinely spraying extra passes to open shooters.
Al Horford, in the midst of perhaps the hottest streak of his career, made his first six 3-pointers and finished with 22 points. His last triple caromed all over the rim before somehow finding its way through, an indication that he could do no wrong.
“I think after my second or third three I was like, ‘Man, it feels pretty good,’” Horford said. “And at that point you just try to stay with it and take advantage of those opportunities.”
Several of Horford’s 3-pointers came on passes from Jayson Tatum, who shook off his minor slump and resembled a superstar again. Tatum, who was ejected for the first time in his career in the loss to the Knicks, played an efficient game and was careful not to simply settle for long jumpers.
He shot 13 of 21 and scored 41 points. Fifteen of his 21 attempts were 2-pointers and he took 14 free throws and added 11 rebounds and 8 assists.
“I just got some easy ones early,” Tatum said. “Layup in transition, getting downhill, finishing at the basket, just kind of opened things up. It wasn’t like I was discouraged or worried that I hadn’t shot the ball that great coming out of the break. Just came out with a mindset, trying to find a way to win.”
Prior to the game, Mazzulla said he was wary of Cleveland’s offensive rebounding. Then Cleveland tallied 10 second-chance points in the opening quarter. But the Celtics remedied the issue and gave up just six second-chance points the rest of the way.
“When you’re shifted and you try to get out to shooters, once they get into the paint you’ve got to come back in and rebound,” Mazzulla said. “And that’s a hard thing to do. And I thought our guys did a good job of getting rebounds out of their area. And we did a good job of having three, four guys in the paint every time they shot the ball.”
Cavaliers All-Star Donovan Mitchell gave his team a chance. He poured in 44 points on 17 for 32 shooting, doing most of his damage with crafty finishes in the paint. Mitchell played 43 minutes, 34 seconds, an excessive workload for a regular-season game without overtime. But he tweaked his groin in the third quarter and was concerned that if he sat, the injury would tighten up and he’d be unable to return.
“In some of those moments, honestly, you’re playing off of adrenaline,” Mitchell said.
So he played the entire second half before taking a seat with 1:36 left and his team trailing, 113-100. That was essentially Cleveland’s acknowledgment that the game was over, but Darius Garland sparked an unlikely comeback anyway. He needed just 47 seconds to go on an 8-0 run by himself, the second 3-pointer in that flurry pulling the Cavs within 113-108 with 27.5 seconds left.
Marcus Smart and Tatum each hit a pair of free throws, and after another Garland 3 made it 117-113 with 12.3 seconds remaining, the Celtics ran out the clock and secured the win.
The victory keeps them within a half-game of the first-place Bucks with 19 games remaining. More importantly, it wiped away the bad feelings from the Knicks loss before they could swell.