CLEVELAND — For a moment, it appeared Grant Williams had saved the Celtics.
After the Cavaliers roared back from an 11-point deficit in the last six minutes of regulation and tied the score with two Donovan Mitchell free throws with 5.8 seconds remaining, Payton Pritchard took the inbounds pass, rushed upcourt and got to the basket, where a tough layup slid off the rim.
Williams leapt for the putback and was fouled by Cleveland’s Lamar Stevens with 0.8 seconds left. He entered the night as an 82.7 percent free throw shooter and just needed to make one. Some fans did the math and started heading toward the exits.
But the Cavaliers were going to make it difficult. As Williams stood at the line, Mitchell, a fellow NBA Players Association vice president, stepped in front of him and started talking.
“We have a [Players Association] call on Thursday,” Mitchell sheepishly recounted later. “So, I was just like, ‘Let’s just miss one and talk about it, and see what happens.’ "
Williams told Mitchell three times that he was going to make both shots. But he missed the first. Then the Cavaliers’ Darius Garland entered the fray as a disruptor, gathering his teammates and pointing all over the place. It was like icing a kicker up close.
The second shot rimmed out. Marcus Smart’s tip-in attempt was no good and, somehow, less than 24 hours after a crushing double-overtime loss to the Knicks, Boston was headed to an extra session again. By this point, the eventual result seemed obvious.
Buoyed by their unlikely second chance, the Cavaliers seized a 118-114 win that stretched the Celtics’ losing streak to three.
Williams, who drained four consecutive 3-pointers during the second quarter, was not in the locker room when it was opened to reporters 15 minutes after the final buzzer. Others stood up for him. Coach Joe Mazzulla said he told Williams that he loved him, and that he could grow from this. Malcolm Brogdon said the Celtics should never have even put Williams in that position.
Said Jaylen Brown, who had a similar fate in a January loss to the Knicks: “You can’t let it be a spirit breaker … You can look at it and go two different ways. You can go up or you can go down. I want him to go up.”
Really, that statement could speak for all of these Celtics during this difficult stretch.
On Friday, they coughed up a 28-point lead and fell to the Nets. On Sunday, they gave up a 14-point third-quarter lead and lost in double overtime to the Knicks when Al Horford’s potential game-winner rimmed out. And on Monday, they controlled the game’s first three and a half quarters, gave up the 11-point lead with less than six minutes left, and still had an overwhelmingly strong chance to win when Williams stepped to the free throw line needing just one free throw.
“We came back out from the [All-Star] break and everybody lost their rhythm on both ends of the floor,” Smart said. “We’re struggling and trying to get it back … The beauty about this team is once we do figure it out, we’re off and running. But we’ve got to figure it out.”
The Celtics would have been forgiven if they lost without putting up much of a fight. After the marathon against New York, they came to Cleveland with tired legs and without Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Robert Williams.
But as the game rolled on, they reset what might be possible. The game’s path probably made it sting more than a blowout loss.
One night after playing 48 minutes, Brown was on the court for 45 and registered 32 points, 13 rebounds, and 9 assists. Malcolm Brogdon returned after a two-game absence and scored 24 points.
Mitchell had 40 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Cavaliers, but his late gamesmanship might have been just as valuable. He said it is just part of the game, and cited several examples over the years.
“Like, it happens,” Mitchell said. “Guys try to find ways to just create something out of nothing, to be honest.”
The Celtics led by as many as 15 points and took a 102-91 lead on a Brown turnaround with 5:26 left in the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers then responded with a 9-0 flurry that included a pair of Garland 3-pointers.
With Boston leading, 106-105, Derrick White and Smart missed 3-pointers before Mitchell rushed upcourt and rolled in a layup, giving the Cavaliers a 107-106 lead, their first since 9-8.
Following a timeout, White’s open 3-pointer from the top of the key was just short but got a friendly roll into the hoop with 12.8 seconds left. Mitchell was fouled with 5.8 seconds to play. The Celtics challenged the call and lost, taking away their last timeout, and Mitchell’s two free throws tied the score at 109.
After Williams’s misses forced overtime, Brown started the extra session with three free throws. But the Cavaliers responded with a 7-0 run that was highlighted by an emphatic dunk by Mitchell. Cleveland led, 116-114, when Mitchell missed a jumper with 18 seconds left, but the ball was batted back to Garland, and the Celtics were forced to foul.
Cleveland had 10 offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter and overtime.
“Everything we’re experiencing from a basketball standpoint is for a reason,” Mazzulla said, “and as long as we learn from it and grow — we haven’t learned about late-game offensive rebounding yet, and so, this might be the fifth or sixth loss, and so that part [aggravates me]. Other than that, it’s just part of it.”