CLEVELAND — The sellout crowd at Quicken Loans Arena was stunned. The Cavaliers fans stared at each other as the Celtics ran full speed into the tunnel as if they got away with something.
They pretty much did.
The Celtics stole a 104-103 win Friday when Avery Bradley drained a corner 3-pointer at the buzzer. The shocking win came after the Celtics scored 5 points in the last 4.9 seconds on a series of fortunate events.
With Cleveland leading, 103-99, and 4.9 seconds left, Evan Turner scored on a baseline layup and was inexplicably fouled by J.R. Smith, who has a well-earned reputation for boneheaded plays.
Turner missed the free throw. Marcus Smart, who was in the game to foul Timofey Mozgov on a made free throw, instead chased the ball and forced a four-man scrum near the baseline. The ball caromed out of bounds off LeBron James with 4.1 seconds left.
The officials reviewed the play, allowing the Celtics, who had no timeouts left, to draw up a play. It was meant for Isaiah Thomas, who drove and then threw a wobbly bounce pass back to Bradley, who briefly hesitated and released.
The shot went swish at the buzzer in perhaps the biggest win of the Brad Stevens era.
"The three was there," Bradley said. "I was happy for us. It was just a great team win. I knew it was in right when it [left his hand]. It's a blessing.
"Really credit to Marcus to have a chance to shoot a game-winner. That was a great play by him."
The shot capped an improbable rally on a night it seemed the Celtics weren't meant to win. They fell behind 14-2, rallied to take a late 7-point lead, and then yielded a 16-4 run as LeBron James took control of the game.
Kyrie Irving sank two free throws for a 101-96 lead with 18.6 seconds left. Jae Crowder hit his first shot in nine attempts with what appeared to be a too-late-to-help 3-pointer with eight seconds to go.
Irving hit two more free throws with 7.5 seconds left for a 4-point lead. And then the impossible happened.
"Man, it was crazy man," said Evan Turner, who had 19 points and a game-high 12 rebounds for his second double-double in three games.
"On my part, I missed [the free throw] perfectly, I had it all set up."
While Stevens said he inserted Smart in the game to foul Mozgov, the coach said he did not instruct Turner to miss the free throw. Turner maintained he missed it on purpose.
Boston scored 39 points in the fourth quarter on 52 percent shooting and committed just two turnovers. It was a meaningful win against the conference's best team, one that disposed of the Celtics in a four-game sweep last spring in the playoffs.
"In the big picture, it really does count as one game, but it gives you a sense that you're improving and getting better," Stevens said. "Obviously they didn't have Kevin Love [who suffered an injured hamstring] to end the game but I think that, for us, it would have been disappointing to lose that lead and not come out with a win."
Boston used a 13-2 run over 3:47 to take a 92-88 lead with 3:19 left. Iman Shumpert and Smith followed with 3-pointers and then James scored 8 straight as he bulled his way to the basket at will. Tristan Thompson's putback extended the Cleveland lead to 99-94 with 59.9 left.
After a Tyler Zeller layup, Smith rebounded a James 3-point miss and the Celtics were relegated to fouling.
The outlook seemed hopeless. It wasn't.
"It's unbelievable," Turner said of the win. "We needed it. We were down 13, 14 points. They did a great job of making runs on us. We had a couple of plays that didn't go our way and we still battled back and played until the end."
The Celtics scored 11 of the first 13 points of the third quarter to take a 54-51 lead. The remainder of the period was a display of offensive futility as the Celtics managed just 11 more points, losing the lead and control of the game.
The Cavaliers weren't necessarily impressive or dominant, just efficient. They relied on a pair of 3-pointers by Smith to retake the lead at 61-56 and Mozgov followed with a pair of layups for a 9-point lead.
Boston, meanwhile, had no offensive flow. In one sequence, Crowder missed a jumper, got the ball back, missed a stepback 3-pointer, then rebounded his own miss, and clanged a running layup. He missed all eight shot attempts through three periods but made the key 3-pointer during the Celtics' improbable rally.
James led all scorers with 30 points.
"I don't know exactly what happened [on that final play],'' James said, "but I was guarding Evan Turner under the basket and I saw Isaiah curl into the lane and I had Tristan switch and we lost track of Avery Bradley.
"The only thing that can beat us was a three and it's unfortunate that is what happened."