CLEVELAND — After he changed clothes into his Celtics sweat suit, holding a container of dinner for the bus ride to the airport, Celtics coach Brad Stevens popped his head into the small, hot room where he was expected to address the media following Tuesday’s game and offered an update after several minutes passed.
“I’m ready [but] we’re waiting for one [media member]. No team meeting.”
And he exited the room with a big smile.
After the Celtics were able to fight off a game Cavaliers club, 116-106, there was time for jokes and lighthearted banter.
The Celtics had won for the first time in 10 days, erasing the pain and doubt generated by some poor fourth-quarter performances, for one night at least.
At Quicken Loans Arena, it could have happened again after Cleveland’s Marquese Chriss splashed a 3-pointer with 9:10 left to erase a 12-point Celtics lead and even the game at 92. There had to be a sinking feeling on the Boston bench. Winning has come so difficult of late. The Celtics led most of the night, but again found themselves in a suspenseful game in the final eight minutes.
There could have been flashbacks to Saturday in Charlotte, when they blew an 18-point lead with 8:21 left. The Celtics response this time can be deemed as progress.
They suffered some mental lapses, allowed the Cavaliers to make runs, but Marcus Smart ensured there would be no embarrassing defeat this time with 5 consecutive points and then an “only Marcus can make this play” save of a possession to help the Celtics end the game with a 24-14 run.
It snapped a frustrating four-game losing streak and drew Boston to within 1½ games of idle Indiana for fourth place in the Eastern Conference with the Pacers coming to Boston on Friday.
It also helped secure a spot in the playoffs, which became official when the Pistons lost in Denver.
The Cavaliers never led in the second half, but they kept fighting long enough to make things hairy after Chriss’s 3-pointer. The Celtics responded with a 14-4 run, sparked by 6 points from Al Horford. Cleveland then scored the next 4 points, but Jordan Clarkson missed two free throws that would have made it a 4-point game with 2:29 left.
Smart then responded with a conventional 3-point play and followed by pair of free throws to seal it. Smart scored 17 of his 21 points in the second, to go along with 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals after halftime.
“We came out and played 48 minutes, it wasn’t perfect, but our effort was there and everybody connected, talking and helping one another,” Smart said. “We had our hands up [ready for the comeback], plain and simple. Those San Antonio-Charlotte games they surprised us. [Tuesday] we wanted to make sure it didn’t happen.”
Stevens tinkered with the starting lineup as the Cavaliers went big with Kevin Love at power forward and Tristan Thompson at center. Stevens countered with Horford, back after missing two games with a sore knee, and Aron Baynes, who usually comes off the bench.
Marcus Morris came off the bench for the first time since Nov. 21 but the change did little to help his shooting. He missed eight of his first nine shots before responding with a pair of 3-pointers and a conventional 3-point play after Smart made his improbable save.
Without Kyrie Irving, who has not made a trip to Cleveland since Opening Night of the 2017-18 season, the Celtics had six scorers in double figures. Jayson Tatum scored 21 points, all in the first half and attempted just three shots after halftime.
In the second half, Horford, Smart, and Morris combined to score 41 points as the Celtics shot nearly 54 percent. It should have been good enough to put away a team that’s 19-56, but Boston made its share of defensive mistakes. One example was in the final seconds of the third period when the Celtics allowed the inbounds pass to roll all the way to halfcourt to speedy rookie Collin Sexton. Inexplicably matched up against burly Guerschon Yabusele, Sexton scooped up the ball and scored at the rim in 2.7 seconds to cut the Celtics’ lead to 88-81.
Sexton finished with 24 points and Clarkson added 18 off the bench. Coach Larry Drew only played Thompson 18 minutes while fellow nemesis Love missed 10 of 13 shots in his 29 minutes.
“I was really disappointed at the end of the third quarter, we just let [Sexton] drive to the rim twice without anybody impeding that,” Stevens said. “From there on out, we’re trading baskets a little too much. But I thought our guys for the most part stayed the course. We didn’t get down; we just moved on to the next play.”
Stevens pointed to the play after Chriss’s 3-pointer, a Horford driving layup and a foul as the turning point.
“We really need Al,” Stevens said. “There’s no ways around that. He brings us a lot when he’s guarded by a smaller guy in the post, and when he’s guarded by a bigger guy, he can stretch them out.”
Horford scored his 19 points with 8 rebounds and 5 assists in just 26 minutes. Not coincidentally, the Celtics lost both he Horford missed with left knee soreness.
“Just making sure we responded the right way, got stops when we needed to, taking good shots on offense,” Horford said. “We just answered every run they had for us. Obviously, we weren’t perfect, but I was happy with the focus of our group.”