With wins in 10 of their last 13 marking a rise to the top few believed in, Brad Stevens' Celtics came into Cleveland once again. They were 0-3 there when Lebron James plays. But this was their first visit as a top four team in the East themselves.
Stevens spoke at length about how you can't give Cleveland a steady dose of anything. He knew that going against the top dogs in the conference who swept them last postseason, he'd have to be prepared to change their plan immediately.
Like the visionary coach he is, Stevens was dead on. The C's adjusted their attack from start to finish to keep up with a relentless attack by the Cavaliers, and three plays in the final seconds changed the outcome of the game. J.R. Smith fouled Evan Turner up four on his basket, Marcus Smart muscled Timofey Mozgov into the ball off the free throw, and Avery Bradley hit a three-pointer for the win as the Celts pulled off a miracle 104-103.
Opening up, their usual Lebron James stopper, Jae Crowder (1-9, 3 points), could only play on his injured ankle because he absolutely had to. Cleveland gave them a quick reminder of what they were missing since December.
Jumping out to a 13-2 lead behind slick shooting from Smith (7-15, 20 points) and two-way brilliance from Lebron (30 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists), it turned into one of those rare situations where the Celts look absolutely bamboozled in the first quarter.
The Cavs buried five of their first six and Stevens called timeout to break from the game plan that they entered with. Just like he envisioned.
Boston began to work on the fly to find their in-the-moment plan. They targeted Tristan Thompson covering Jared Sullinger as a possible outlet for points; which led to a foul and two scores. Yielding results and points at first, the Cavs quickly adjusted by getting to him before he entered the paint.
Kyrie Irving (7-15, 19 pts) then got into the swing of things, scoring on two straight possessions to put Cleveland back up by 10. Including a ridiculously exagertaed spin move to get by Bradley and bury a jumper.
Kelly Olynyk (0-1, 2 pts) then entered, met by showers of boos from the fans for his role in nearly amputating Kevin Love's (4-10, 10 pts) arm in April.
The offensive struggles only continued for the Celtics. They missed nine of 14 shots and took 9:30 to get to 13 points.
That wasn't even the worst of it. Isaiah elevated at the end of a drive off his ankle, which was tilted sideways, and headed to the locker-room. It was time to adjust again for Stevens.
The exhale came quickly as he was only getting his ankle re-taped, but in the meantime Mo Williams went to work scoring four against the back-court duo of Turner and Smart before Love hit another three. After one, Cavs led by a 32-20 margin.
Cavaliers were just a different beast than what the Celtics have been beating up on lately. Every time they exposed one weakness, like the corner three, C's would have to make constant adjustments. Before that's over, Cleveland would already move elsewhere. Like a painful race that never ends.
But adjust Boston would continue to do. Bradley got himself open for a three to start the 2nd, Tyler Zeller (8-10, 16 pts) got an inside bucket against his old team, before Olynyk buried a pair of free throws while being harassed by the Cleveland crowd like 2010-11 Lebron. It was painful, but it was a game again.
Inserting Zeller and Olynyk together started a string of offensive success through movement and quickness. But Cleveland just didn't care, with Lebron getting rest Richard Jefferson was able to get easy drives to the rim against that interior.
But what hurt Boston more than anything in the first 19 minutes was their 11 turnovers. Which always instilled a spark of confidence in the ensuing offensive possession for Cleveland. On one play in particular from the first, Lebron ran over Bradley all the way up the court like the snow blowers across driveways on Friday morning in Boston.
Late in the 2nd quarter the Celtics' defense finally stood up and asserted themselves. Thanks to an 8-2 stretch from the starters where they didn't turn it over, it was broken up when Turner over-dribbled and lost it to Lebron.
But the Celtics got lucky. Cleveland began to play extremely loose on the offensive end, shooting 0-9 in the final 5:04, while Boston gritted out eight to pull within 49-43 at the half. The run carried into the third as well, with two buckets inside from Amir Johnson pushing it to 12-2 as the Celtics got within 49-47.
James had talked before the game about what he described as a run of the team giving up 30 points every 3rd quarter, a big problem for their team, and their trend of struggles there was on display immediately. Cleveland didn't get their first bucket in the frame until two minutes in, while the Celtics made five of their first six to jump ahead to a 54-51 lead.
It wouldn't be long before Stevens' next adjustment would be needed, though. After making five of their first six in the quarter, they missed five of their next six to allow the Cavs to jump up to a 61-56 lead. Smith broke the quarter wide open with a three to open up a 7-0 run.
Boston was clearly emphasizing ball control and rebounding, but the insistent charge of the Cavaliers offense rendered their carefulness useless. James and Smith powered the Cavs to a 22-11 rush in the final 9:26 of the quarter. They led 73-65, but suddenly found themselves without one of their big three again.
Non-contact injuries are always the scariest in basketball, and Love found himself right in the middle of one late in the 3rd. Landing awkwardly on his left leg and falling along the baseline, grabbing his knee, he was swarmed by medical personnel and found himself limping to the locker room. He was down for several minutes.
It was quickly announced initially as a left thigh bruise and he was ruled out for the rest of the game. In the meantime, the Celtics snuck up from behind on Cleveland's lead once again early in the 4th. Thomas put up a quick five with a jumper and three free throws, Zeller laid one in, and Turner finished at the rim with flare to put them back within two points.
The C's put their three ball-handlers (Smart, Turner, Thomas) out there together as the quarter went on. They took precise measures to maintain their rebounding advantage, keep turnovers low (just two in the second half into the fourth), and hit all of their free throws (14-14) but still trailed by two with eight minutes to go.
Incredibly, the Cavs continued to charge forward hitting tough shots and getting key calls. Lebron almost sent the game soaring in Cleveland's direction with a deep three and foul on Mozgov on one play. Luckily, the refs took the basket away and they missed both free throws.
A few plays later Turner hit a fancy bucket at the rim and converted on his ensuing foul shot. The Celtics led again. And started to lure their opponent into some isolation ball. A 17-7 run to that point put them up in the game, Sullinger bullied Smith inside to score a big bucket. Turner then hit a huge shot to put them up 90-83.
Celtics had to be persistent through the varied attacks Cleveland threw at them and amazingly found themselves in control of the game with 3:00 to go. But Stevens knew the Cavs were coming again.
Calling a timeout, he stressed defensive switches were going to be needed now to win this. Sure enough Cleveland came out getting Smith free with three wide off a pick and he buried a three. A pair of free throws off the next stop from Lebron put them up 93-92.
Isaiah tied the game at 96 with a pair of free throws before the spread and screen scheme of the Cavs hit them unbelievably quickly. Thomas was buried off a screen and Lebron tore right through the hole for a three point play.
But it got worse for Boston. After all their work, all their persistence, all their adjustments; Evan Turner came out of a timeout with a minute to go and took a dumb three pointer from the corner. He missed, Thompson hit a lay-in on the other end, and Cavaliers grabbed an offensive board with 22 seconds to go up 101-96. Boston's fate seemed sealed, but they came back from the dead.
Down four Turner drove baseline and the Cavaliers avoided him. All but one, J.R. Smith. He chased Turner, fouled him on the bucket, and on the ensuing free throw Smart made what may have been the play of the season. He muscled Mozgov forward from behind, the missed free throw caromed off the Cavs, and the Celtics were amazingly back in the game.
Now within two thanks to a brutal blunder from Smith; Bradley received a pass, set himself, and buried the game winner. It took all the persistence in the world and some help from the opponent, but with it the Celtics may have had their best win under Stevens.