By Fred Jones|Joey Balzotti|Matt Szafran
It was almost fitting that Floyd Mayweather was in attendance. Following a highly technical first half of basketball, filled with runs and responses, the second half resembled Mayweather’s fight with Pacquiao. The Cavaliers and Celtics, the two heavyweights of the East, began trading body blow after body blow in the second half, culminating in what probably will be the best end of regulation in the regular season this year.
Coming off an absolutely brutal loss at Atlanta the previous night, with the Celtics shooting just 31% from the field, this was a dreaded fixture for the Celtics. LeBron James had come in averaging nearly 30 points per game through his 44 career matches against Boston, and he came out in the same vein. Steven’s decision to place Isaiah on James early helped, and Thomas’ scrappy play to win a ball and assist Amir Johnson would set the tone for later in the night. For the most part, the Celtics were able to hold their own against the penetration from LeBron and Kyrie, and this improved throughout the game. By midway through the second quarter James was in a groove, having over twice the points than anyone else in the game. The game quickly escaping, the Celtics needed a breath of life.
They found one, strangely, in a spot where most sportswriters claimed they needed help: on the glass. A string of offensive rebounds, followed by quick transition play to Isaiah, allowed the C’s back into the game on a 12-2 run, salvaging a 50-49 deficit from a half that well could have ended much worse. The crowd at the Garden tonight really showed up, energizing their beloved team, and providing them with a ray of hope. There were bright spots in the half, mainly in Marcus Smart’s inspiring play on the glass, a stretch of nice Olynyk production in the paint, and Horford’s 6 boards and 6 assists. However, more of what the Celtics were able to take from the half was the grit. This Cleveland team was clearly superior, but through grit and scrap the Celtics were able to hang on.
After being disparaged by Jaylen Rose on ESPN’s halftime show for not scoring until 11 seconds from the break (despite his stellar 2/6/6 line), Al Horford came out into the second half with a vengeance. He dominated the paint, picking up an early block, and began putting up stellar points down low, allowing the Celtics to, yet again, hang on in the face of the Cavs’ multi-faceted offense. If the Celtics plan on making a deep playoff run, they need this type of production on a consistent basis from Al. Other than Horford’s play, the quarter caused a deal of consternation for C’s fans, with the referees refusing to recognize that Olynyk and Jerebko were actually playing defense, not blindly fouling Cleveland.
The fourth quarter, however, was when the grit and determination of the Celtics came into its’ own. While Isaiah was on the parquet for nearly the entire 12 minutes, Cleveland’s playmakers were rotating in and out to remain fresh. The sides traded blow after blow for much of the early portion of the period, with Kyrie Irving putting together a phenomenal quarter (After having only 8 points near the end of the third, he ended the game with 24). Unfortunately, what was shaping up to be a great quarter of basketball was interfered with by the officiating crew. Possession after possession ended in fouls down low, more often than not without real justification. At one point the officials even blew a crystal clear out-of-bounds call against Al Horford. The real difference, in the second half, turned out to be exactly what the Celtics had struggled with over the past 6 periods of basketball: their shooting efficiency. After the horrendous 31% night against Atlanta, compounded by a horrific 2-13 from beyond the arc in the first half, the 10-17 rate in the final 24 minutes was the difference maker. Avery Bradley’s return to the lineup was of huge assistance to Isaiah, giving the C’s another scoring option, allowing them to be less reliant on Number 4.In a string of 3 straight possessions near the end of the game, the Celtics drained crucial 3-point shots to remain on level terms with the NBA titleholders. Isaiah’s 29 foot effort capped this run, and set the Garden ablaze in chants of “MVP”; these chants were not without merit. Nearly every Celtic on the floor made a big play or two at the end of the game. Jaylen Brown hit a huge three, along with Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley. Isaiah penetrated effectively. The game, however, came down to what has been the Celtics’ biggest question mark against high-powered teams this year: their defense. Outside of the omnipresent (tonight was no exception) production from Smart and Horford, this has been a difficult area for this team occasionally. Tonight it was not. Isaiah put in good efforts on Kyrie throughout the end of the night, but the real clutch play came from Avery Bradley. With Kyrie Irving, arguably the best iso player in the league, driving to attempt the same reverse layup he had burned the Celtics with on the last possession, Bradley clamped down on the Duke product harder than science has on Irving’s theories. Forced to get rid of the ball, a later Deron Williams missed three saw Crowder draw an intentional foul on the board. Two free throws sealed the deal, and a huge Celtics W.
What this win means for the team is invaluable. To prove that they can beat the best team in the East without a world-beating night from Isaiah, but production all aspects from the lineup, will give this team the confidence it needs to conclude the regular season, and last into the playoffs, should they face Cleveland again.