In an unlikely sequence of events, the Boston Celtics managed to score five points in the final 5.9 seconds to steal a 104-103 victory and hand the Eastern juggernaut Cleveland Cavaliers their fourth home loss of the season.
The first half had all the makings of a Cavaliers blowout victory. The Cavs came out firing on all cylinders and quickly racked up a 14-2 lead. The Celtics, who hadn’t lost a game by more than ten points since December 12th, simply appeared outmatched, just as they were in last years’ first-round playoff series.
Kelly Olynyk, a key component to Boston’s recent success, was nowhere to be found. It was Olynyk’s first game back in Cleveland since tangling up with Kevin Love in the playoffs, and many Cavs fans accuse him of deliberately dislocating Love’s shoulder. To the delight of the booing crowd, the 7-footer was held to just two points in twelve minutes.
Despite scoring a team-high 22 points, 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas found himself struggling to get into an offensive groove while being guarded by 6-foot-5 defensive specialist Iman Shumpert.
Meanwhile, it was business as usual for LeBron James, who scored 30 points, 28 of which came on drives to to hoop or at the free throw line.
But the Celtics kept fighting, and found themselves only down by six at half-time. The game remained neck-and-neck throughout the second half, but Boston couldn’t keep LeBron James out of the paint and the Cavs found themselves with a comfortable four-point lead with eight seconds to go.
The Celtics drew up a play for an Evan Turner layup. Not only did Turner quickly hit the shot, but was mindlessly fouled by J.R. Smith, sending him to the free-throw line. Turner’s shot bounced off the front of the rim, but Marcus Smart bullied his way underneath and caused the ball to bounce out of bounds off the thigh of LeBron James. The Celtics had one final chance, and put the ball in the hands of Isaiah Thomas. Thomas quickly recognized a double-team coming his way, and dished the ball to Avery Bradley who managed to launch a three pointer just before the buzzer.
“If you play this game, you should believe you’re going to win until the horn goes off,” Bradley said afterward.
Boston’s victory, combined with an Atlanta Hawks loss to the Orlando Magic (on a buzzer beater nonetheless), puts them in sole possession of the third seed in the Eastern conference standings. They currently sit seven games behind the first-place Cavaliers.
“In the big picture, [Friday’s victory] really doesn’t count as one [win],” said head coach Brad Stevens. “It gives you a sense that you’re improving and getting better… They made huge plays late in the game and I thought we missed some pretty good looks — I thought we got good looks. But then for our guys to stay poised and score five points inside eight seconds is a good deal.”