The best-case scenario for the Celtics, on these nights when they are missing two frontline players, is for their supporting cast to use the opportunity to flourish and gain confidence for more important games in the final two months.
Such was the case Wednesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers when the Celtics rested Al Horford and sat Kyrie Irving because of flu-like symptoms, allowing for more prominent roles for Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown.
Against an inferior opponent and with a chance to notch another win before their Saturday night showdown with the Golden State Warriors, Brown and Rozier were superb in the Celtics’ 123-103 pasting of the Cavaliers at TD Garden.
Rozier scored a season-high 26 points, 22 in the first half, while Brown added 23 on 8-for-12 shooting. The Celtics took the lead for good midway through the second quarter and cruised to their fifth consecutive victory.
Rozier added eight rebounds and six assists, while Brown added five rebounds, in the Celtics’ second win over Cleveland this season.
Irving texted Rozier early Wednesday morning to let him know he would miss the game, allowing Rozier some time to prepare for his 22nd NBA regular-season start and sixth this season.
“He’s been a good mentor all year since we’ve been playing together,” Rozier said. “He’s giving me that confidence early in the day. Obviously, I know I’m going out there right away and I can get myself ready for that. It’s kind of different but at the same time trying to be effective either way.”
Despite the Cavaliers having lost 16 of their previous 17 games, the Celtics were wary of any letdowns, especially without Irving and Horford. They were rightfully concerned for a while.
Cleveland’s lead grew to 34-29 early in the second quarter before the Celtics took control with a 36-16 run, capped by a swished 3-pointer from Rozier to end the half for a 65-50 lead. He finished with 22 points in 15:42 on 8-for-8 shooting and 4 for 4 from the 3-point line.
It’s been a bumpy season for Rozier, who has been relegated to backup after the return of Irving. Rozier helped lead the Celtics to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals as a starter, but resuming his reserve role has been difficult. In six games as a starter, Rozier is averaging 14.8 points on 48.4 percent shooting and 37.5 percent from the 3-point line.
His season numbers are 8.7, 38.0, and 35.4. Starting fits Rozier, but it won’t happen often in Boston unless Irving is unavailable.
“It gives you a chance to stay at a good level when guys are out,” coach Brad Stevens said. “I think Terry’s played not only well [Wednesday] but has had the better part of the last few games he’s been very good. I’ve been really encouraged by him. He’s a great guy, as we’ve all talked, with his work ethic, his desire to get better. Never says a word about the days he doesn’t start. He just comes in, tries to play his hardest, so really encouraged and hopefully we can carry it over.”
The Celtics could definitely use an engaged and effective Rozier for the second half of the season. He said he has been playing without pressure over the past few weeks.
“Just going out there with confidence, just playing free,” he said.
“When I’m like that . . . ” a reporter interjected by saying. “You’re unstoppable?” and Rozier responded, “Exactly.”
Brown, meanwhile, scored 14 points in the second half, as he continues his ascension after a difficult first two months. In his past 24 games, Brown is averaging 13.2 points on 48.5 percent shooting and 38.4 percent from the 3-point line.
“I don’t really know how to answer that question,” he said about his recent success. “I’m just trying to play basketball. My [injured] hand is feeling a little better and it was giving me troubles early in the year. Just shooting the ball better.”
The Celtics were wary of the rebuilding Cavaliers, who are headed for a return to the draft lottery after being the Eastern Conference’s representative in the NBA Finals the past four years.
But LeBron James is gone. J.R. Smith is home awaiting a trade. Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are hurt, and even coach Tyronn Lue has been replaced. Still, the Cavaliers started fast, shooting 56.5 percent in the first quarter behind former Celtics first-round pick Ante Zizic, who was traded before he ever played a game in Green.
Zizic finished with 19 points on 9-for-17 shooting with eight rebounds. The Celtics had to give him up in the Irving trade, and Stevens laments never getting a chance to develop the Croatian big man.
“I thought [he] played great,” Stevens said. “You always watch the guys you traded with a closer eye. Even though I didn’t get a chance to spend much time with Ante, maybe only a couple of months, I really happy to see him doing well.”