BOSTON – In a year nearly devoid of statement wins, the Celtics have a new item at the top of their playoff resume.
It was the kind of stage Isaiah Thomas would slide across and start break dancing. With three minutes left in the fourth, he bricked a bad attempt at a three, but came down the other end and actually stuffed a Tristan Thompson layup.
The Celtics are known for playing with urgency and intensity at the end of games. This scenario called for something beyond that. It required the Celtics to restore their potency, as they cracked open the original blueprint to this team as it was constructed heading into the season.
It was the reason they survived a LeBron James triple-double to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 103-99 in a highly anticipated national TV showdown.
Stevens closed the game with his original closing lineup of IT, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Al Horford, which hasn’t seen crunch time in months due to Bradley’s injury. The Coma Lineup forced two straight stops on their first possessions and executed perfectly on offense to find open threes.
With the Coma Lineup in, the Celtics have the perfect synergy of ball movement and shooters to take advantage of Isaiah Thomas double teams.
“I average 30 points for a reason. I made plays,” Thomas said. “They doubled me. I passed it to Jae, he hit a shot. I passed it to Avery. I believe in my teammates. Then I hit a three-pointer where they miscommunicated on their coverage, but my job every day, no matter what the defense throws at me, is to make plays, score the ball, and I tried to do that to the best of my ability.”
Jae Crowder’s open weak-side elbow three at the two-minute mark gave the Celtics the lead. Avery Bradley trapped Kyrie Irving in the corner on the next play and wrapped him up in plastic, but Irving managed to draw a questionable reaching foul on his eventual shot. Bradley responded by burying another open three at the 1:09 mark to take a 96-94 lead.
“Mentally I was prepared. I was trying to stay warm on the sideline,” Bradley said. “I just knew once I got the opportunity to go back out there, I was going to play as hard as I can and make sure I was focused.”
Irving made some crucial plays on offense and, as always, could not be completely contained. But Bradley’s performance stood out as the key to the win.
“Irving is a tremendous scorer, he made shots against everybody tonight, he’s a hard guy to stop,” Stevens said. “But I think that having a guy like Avery out there – you know – good offense usually beats good defense, but Avery certainly makes it as tough as humanly possible when he’s guarding somebody.”
After Bradley’s three, Kyle Korver and Isaiah Thomas exchanged threes, then Kyrie Irving hit a flabbergasting up-and-under to tie it up at 99. The Celtics got wide open threes on every play in the closing minutes with their death lineup, even if Thomas had to pull up from 30 feet.
Isaiah Thomas with the HUGE 3-pointer! pic.twitter.com/vuNkXUJqHG— Boston Celtics (@celtics) March 2, 2017
Thomas took the team into transition, saving the timeouts and attacked the paint for a foul. He cashed in both free throws, setting up a final possession for the Cavs.
They put Kyrie Irving on an island against Avery Bradley, who again smothered him and forced a miss. Tristan Thompson snatched the rebound over Al Horford and found LeBron James at the top of the key. James upfaked away half the Celtics’ roster on closeouts and whipped a bullet to Deron Williams in the corner. But his three rattled out, and Jae Crowder came down with the rebound and the game.
Avery Bradley played 12:35 in the first half, in another big step toward returning to his intensive role in the Celtics rotation. Stevens sent Smart in to rescue Bradley halfway through the third, when Kyrie Irving started dancing by him.
But when he returned for the final minutes, Bradley looked like the first team All-Defense menace he has built on which he has built his reputation. His ability to stay in stride with one of the quickest ball handlers in the league in Irving was beyond impressive. Stare at his footwork on this final play to end the game, where Bradley shuffles his feet like he is breaking the record on Dance Dance Revolution.
Marcus Smart is the Cobra for his physical imposition and ferocious nose for the ball. Bradley is a different, yet equally incredible, on-ball stopped. While Smart bodies the ball handler into submission, Bradley handcuffs them to his belt, never straying beyond half an arm’s length from his man. Depending on the matchup, the Celtics always have the right guy to throw out there against the opponent’s great scorer in crunch time.
Of all the defenders to face LeBron Wednesday, it was Kelly Olynyk who stood out as the only one to survive the stampede. LeBron attacked Olynyk whenever he had the chance, but Kelly kept his feet wide, chest forward and moved in stride with the King. He had several stops on LeBron and walked away as the only Celtic who could say he stood up to his highness. But he eventually succumbed to foul trouble, picking up his fifth foul with the second unit early in the fourth quarter.
LeBron finished with a triple-double with 28 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists, while Al Horford fell just short with 9 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.
“Great game. Executed well by both teams,” LeBron said. “They made a couple more shots than we did down the stretch. Nothing bad about tonight, obviously you could look back here and there. We played a very good game and they played a very good game and were victorious.”
It was one of those nights where the whole team brought it. But the man who has watched from afar all this time had the necessary perspective to turn this win from a triumph to a foundation.
“This needs to carry over for us,” said Bradley. “I said earlier we get prepared for these games and get excited for TV games, but it’s the games that aren’t on TV and we’re playing the teams that might not have the LeBron’s that we need to go out there and make sure we’re playing the right way and playing with energy and trying to improve and be the best team we can be every single game.”
Coach Stevens is more process-oriented than Joel Embiid, preaching from his perch post-game that his game plan was to win each play, rather than focusing on winning the game itself.
“I went into the game thinking, and told our guys this afternoon, and just told them now, I wasn’t as concerned about the result. I just wanted to play with a real purpose possession to possession, and maximize as many of those as possible. Let the chips fall where they may.”
A big part of that process is taking this crunch time performance from Avery Bradley, this perfect execution from the Coma Lineup, and building the momentum they need to come through their west coast swing within striking distance of Cleveland and the top seed. Bradley will be back to full strength next week, just in time for the Celtics’ date with the Golden State Warriors sans Kevin Durant.
“This is (Bradley’s) next step in his progression and in the next game he will hopefully play a little bit more and then that – that will end sometime early next week and we’ll not worry about trying to manage that anymore,” Stevens said.
Avery Bradley may be back, but Jaylen Brown isn’t losing his well-earned rotation spot any time soon. His physical defense was vital in the second half, where he played the three for the most part, something he hasn’t done in some time. But those alley-oops are turning into deja vu, becoming a nightly staple for the dynamic rookie.