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Game 3: Celtics 111, Cavaliers 108

Refusing to quit, diehard Celtics win shocker on Avery Bradley’s 3

Avery Bradley (right) had the look of a stone-cold assassin after hitting his game-winning 3-pointer. Al Horford couldn’t contain his excitement.
Avery Bradley (right) had the look of a stone-cold assassin after hitting his game-winning 3-pointer. Al Horford couldn’t contain his excitement.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

CLEVELAND — When the Celtics gathered for their morning shootaround on Sunday prior to Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, they did so without their point guard, Isaiah Thomas, who was back in Boston nursing a hip injury.

Of course they would rather have had their two-time All-Star with them, but he wasn’t, and they were prepared to move on. Then during their interview sessions they were peppered with one question about Thomas after another.

“Isaiah helps us out a lot and we know what he does for us,” forward Jae Crowder said. “But we know we’re capable of winning without him, and I think that ticked a lot of guys off, it being all about him. We had a game to play tonight.”

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This team has built its identity on slights — perceived and real — and now there was a new one to motivate them. On the outside, though, it appeared that they would need much more than that.

They arrived here hurt and humbled. After getting flattened in the first two games at home, they had to find a way to turn the series around on the road, without Thomas, against a team that appeared to be on an inexorable march to a finals rematch against the Warriors.

But this Boston team did not win 53 games and secure the No. 1 seed by accident. The Celtics did not know if they would win, but they knew that if they lost, it would not be because they gave up.

And so they took the court and completed their most improbable comeback of this improbable season, surging back from a 21-point third-quarter deficit to take a 111-108 victory on Avery Bradley’s 3-pointer with 0.1 seconds left.

The Celtics handed Cleveland its first loss of the playoffs and pulled within 2-1 in this best-of-seven series. This result ensured that there will be at least one more game in Boston this season.

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“We just told each other that no matter what happens,” Marcus Smart said, “we’ve got to be the hardest playing team.”

Moments after the Celtics got to their locker room afterward, they made a FaceTime video call to Thomas, who seemed even more thrilled than they were. They told him they were fighting for him. They told him to get healthy.

“He was very stoked,” Crowder said, smiling. “He was happy and smiling and yelling. You know him, he was yelling and [stuff] on the phone.”

Later, Bradley sat at his locker and briefly relived his game-winning 3-pointer with a team staffer. He said it was an amazing play drawn up by coach Brad Stevens, and he said his first thought was how bad it would be if he missed such an open opportunity. But he didn’t.

With 10.7 seconds remaining and the Celtics leading by 2, Cleveland had an unsettled possession before Kyrie Irving carved through the lane for a layup.

After a timeout, the inbounds pass came to Smart, the 28-percent 3-point shooter who had somehow carried the Celtics with his long-range accuracy all night, making 7 of 10 attempts from behind the arc.

With LeBron James guarding him about 35 feet from the basket, he took a few calm dribbles before firing a pass to Bradley, who had somehow become open on the left arc after two defenders followed Jae Crowder along the baseline on a screen.

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If Bradley’s shot had gone in cleanly, there would have been about two seconds left. Instead, it bounced high off the rim, then caromed off the back of the rim, and then hit the front of it before sliding through the net with just 0.1 seconds to play. It was a charmed result on a charmed night for Boston.

“When it bounced around, I was actually hoping it went in, obviously,” Stevens said, “but not completely disappointed that it was bouncing up there.”

After the final buzzer, the Celtics celebrated, and the sold-out crowd that had been so lively at the start shuffled to the exits in stunned silence. The belief in this city was that the two games here would almost serve as a celebration before the real challenge against the Warriors arrived in the finals.

And now it was clear that it might not be so easy.

James, who had scored at least 30 points in every playoff game but one, when he had 25, was held to just 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting.

“I’m glad it kind of happened the way it did,” James said, pointing out that his team might benefit from the wake-up call.

Smart finished with 27 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds for the Celtics, who made 18 of 40 3-pointers as a team. Jonas Jerebko, who has been used sparingly in these playoffs, sat for the entire first half and then came off the bench in the second and made all four of his shots and tallied 10 points and 5 rebounds.

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The Celtics were actually pleased with their play at the start.

They were contesting shooters and finding open looks at the offensive end. The problem was that Cleveland continued to unfurl its flamethrowers who could not miss.

Kevin Love made seven 3s in the first half, and he, Irving and J.R. Smith combined to go an unfathomable 13 of 16 from beyond the arc.

“I was hoping the law of averages would kick in at some point,” Stevens said. “Some of those shots were just incredible.”

But the Celtics remained confident, even when they went to halftime trailing, 66-50, and even when they were behind, 77-56, with 6:39 left in the third quarter.

“Just because we were down those first two games and were down in the third quarter didn’t mean we didn’t believe in ourselves,” forward Gerald Green said.

The Celtics drilled six 3-pointers over the final 6:24 of the quarter, with Smart serving as the improbable marksman.

He hit two 3s and was fouled on another, as Boston closed the quarter with a 26-10 run to pull within 87-82.

But Smart was not done. With 5:48 left he pulled up and drained his seventh 3, tying the score at 95.

“Let it flow and let it show,” Smart said.

With 46.3 seconds left, Horford scored inside to give the Celtics a 106-103 lead before Smith’s 3 from the top of the key tied the score with 36.3 seconds left.

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After a timeout, Jerebko hit a jumper from the left corner with 30.3 left. Irving would tie the score on his late layup, but Bradley had the final say.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.