The moment Evan Mobley grabbed the rebound under the Cavaliers basket but exposed the ball, Marcus Smart converged. He’s seven inches shorter than Mobley yet he refused to allow the Cleveland big man to convert an easy putback.
Smart charged Mobley and grabbed whatever fraction of the ball Mobley’s arms didn’t cover, causing a jump ball. The Celtics needed to make those extra plays, exert that extra effort to reduce the impact of the Cleveland bigs, who had their way in the first two meetings four months ago.
The Cavaliers beat the Celtics twice in a five-day span, both overtime wins with Robert Williams still recovering from knee surgery and the Celtics still trying to figure out themselves and coach Joe Mazzulla.
Wednesday’s rematch would be a considerable test, another showdown with an Eastern Conference contender, this one with formidable size and an elite scorer in Donovan Mitchell.
The Celtics led for the final 26 minutes and 6 seconds in the 117-113 win at TD Garden, as Boston responded favorably from adversity two days after Monday’s drubbing in New York.
Smart was angry after the New York loss. He didn’t speak to reporters and fumed over the team’s reliance on 3-point shots and lack of one-on-one defense. Jaylen Brown also mentioned the early 3-point dependency that caused the Celtics to fall behind early.
Smart wanted the Celtics to put more emphasis on individual defense instead of doubling and helping so much. The Cavaliers, besides Mitchell, had issues scoring save the final 2 minutes, 15 seconds, when they scored 15 points to make matters hairy.
“We allowed our shots not going down to affect us defensively,” Smart told the Globe. “For us, we have to be able to guard one-on-one a little more, take pride in it. We were going and doubling, trying to create some chaos. But I think we just have to be a little more solid and make guys beat us one on one and if they do it, then they do it, but we have to be able to hold our own.”
The Celtics took control behind 18 third-quarter points from Jayson Tatum but also turned the Cavaliers into a one-dimensional offensive team. The backcourt of Mitchell and Darius Garland combined for 73 points while the two-big lineup of Mobley and Jarrett Allen combined for 17. Mitchell carried Cleveland in the second half, but it was hardly good enough against the Celtics’ balance and depth.
The offense was considerably better than Monday, shooting 50 percent from the field and from the 3-point line, and there was more emphasis on game execution, ball movement, and rebounding and less on the officials.
When the Celtics are locked in mentally, they are a difficult team to beat.
“We just stayed the course,” Brown said. “We got some more shots to fall, and we just continued to get [defensive] stops, continuing to make it tough on them. You never want to lose two in the row. We’ve got a pretty good stretch of basketball coming up. There will be some tough games and we’re going to have to find ways to win. Guys are going to have to be ready.”
The chase for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference has turned into a two-team race with the Celtics trailing the Milwaukee Bucks by a half-game with 19 to play. Every game is critical because home court advantage in a potential conference finals matchup could make the difference between another trip to the NBA Finals and going home.
The Bucks have won 16 consecutive games but still have two more West Coast road trips, in addition to the series finale against the Celtics on March 30. The Celtics unraveled Monday in New York because shots weren’t falling. Then several non-calls caused even more frustration.
But Wednesday is a prime example of how well they can play against a quality opponent when they’re focused. They stuck to the game plan, played with more early energy and attempted just eight 3-pointers out of 22 shots in the opening quarter. Against the Knicks, 12 of 21 first-quarter shots were threes.
The Celtics put an emphasis on making Mobley and Allen move away from the basket and work defensively. Tatum, meanwhile, played his best game since the All-Star break with 41 points and 11 rebounds. Fifteen of his 21 attempts were 2-pointers.
Boston didn’t settle Wednesday. It challenged the Cavaliers and the Cavaliers wilted under the pressure.
“I said this before, it’s not the same Cleveland team we’ve been used to,” Smart told the Globe. “This is a really good, talented team. So to be able to beat a team that you could possibly see in the playoffs eventually, to finally get that mental monkey off your back, now we see what it feels.”