Celtics deliver big win against Cavaliers

March 2, 2017 GMT

Isaiah Thomas, speaking for himself recently, said he has zeroed in on Cleveland and the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

After their 103-99 win over the Cavaliers last night at the Garden, the Celtics can now dream a little bigger, like their point guard.

Except that Thomas, after nailing a 3-pointer with 49.5 seconds left, and hitting a pair of game-winning free throws with 28.4 on the clock, tried to play like this somehow wasn’t such a big deal.

“We don’t think too much about that. We don’t think about the record against the top teams,” he said. “We knew today we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. We wanted to protect homecourt and get a win before we went out west. We knew it would definitely build some confidence before we go on our road trip.”

The Garden was filled with important hints last night, though, even beyond the presence of a Cavaliers team that d averaged 126 points in two wins over the Celtics earlier this season.

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Bill Belichick, LeGarrette Blount and Thomas’ close friend, boxer Floyd Mayweather, were all sitting courtside for his 31-point performance. Thomas, who had never met the Patriots coach, introduced himself and the two shook hands. So if Thomas didn’t think too much about this beforehand, he had thoughts of April and playoff basketball by the time it was over.

The Celtics limited the Cavs’ high-powered transition offense to under 100 points, and only 12 via the fast break, even though LeBron James and Kyrie Irving each scored 28.

“They have a lot of shooters, lot of guys can really play, and it’s a credit to our guys,” said Al Horford. “I thought we made a lot of mistakes in the offensive end. We can be a lot better, but at the same time we defended hard.”

One of the biggest differences, beyond the Celtics’ ability to spread out the fourth quarter scoring and take pressure off the severely trapped Thomas, was Avery Bradley’s return to a pivotal role. The Celtics guard played 22 minutes (the high end of his time restriction since returning Monday after an Achilles-related 22-game absence), preceded Thomas’ big 3-pointer with a trey of his own, and clamped down on Irving in the last three minutes.

“I think it’s a necessity,” coach Brad Stevens said of having Bradley on the floor in crunch time, especially in the defensive end. “Irving is a tremendous scorer. He made shots against everybody tonight. He’s a hard guy to stop. I know good offense usually beats good defense, but Avery makes it as tough as humanly possible when he’s guarding somebody.”

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Down the other end, Bradley was part of an extensive cast that made Thomas’ fourth quarter existence a little easier, too. Horford finished one point shy of his first Celtics triple double with nine points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, while straining to keep Tristan Thompson off the offensive glass. Jae Crowder, also with a big 3-pointer down the fourth quarter stretch, finished with a 17-point, 10-rebound double-double.

Crowder, Bradley and Thomas all hit 3-pointers in the last 2:06, each time for the lead. And when Bradley pressured Irving into a miss following Thomas’ two go-ahead free throws, the Celtics were able to close out from the line.

Neither side could pull comfortably ahead in the fourth, after a third quarter that featured 11 lead changes. Every shot was seemingly answered in the fourth, too, with the Cavaliers taking the lead eight times, the last on Kyle Korver’s 3 for a 97-96 edge with 57.7 seconds left.

The Cavs’ sharpshooter had missed his previous five shots before uncorking this bomb. The Celtics took back the lead six times in the fourth, including twice before Korver’s shot on 3-pointers from Crowder and Bradley.

Both shots were assisted by Thomas, after the guard drove into traffic in the paint and found his open shooters with kick-outs. Considering the way Thomas has been blitzed to extra effect over the previous four games, the Celtics need these open shooters to continue making shots.

“It’s important for all of our guys to step up,” said Bradley. “Jaylen (Brown) is getting opportunities and playing very well. James Young, Isaiah trusts those guys and we’re a team. He’s getting better at learning how to make plays for our team. Seeing that teams are focusing on him and trapping him, he’s learning, just like everybody would. He’s making the right play 100 percent of the time.”

That would include scoring the ball, naturally.

“I made plays. 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 to Avery, I believe in my teammates. Then I hit a 3-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 try to do that to the best of my ability.”