For the second time in three weeks, Jeff Green delivered a game-winning layup on an expertly diagrammed play. But he was not the hero for the Celtics on Wednesday.
Rather, the hero was Jason Terry. It was Brandon Bass. Or maybe it was Jordan Crawford. All three of those players, who are not known for their defense, contributed to a strong defensive effort down the stretch that helped the Celtics wipe out a 14-point deficit to the Cavaliers and set up Green’s shot, which halted Boston’s five-game losing streak.
Green was the focus of much of the postgame discussion, all of it deserved. When he rolled off a solid down screen by Terry, who was shoved forcefully by Cavs defender Luke Walton, and careened to the hoop for a banked-in layup was time expired, everybody in green exhaled. For the better part of six games, the Celtics mishandled the ball and struggled to complete defensive possessions, with Tuesday’s 29-6 deficit in second-chance points against the Knicks magnifying the problem.
Yet somewhere in the fourth quarter in Cleveland, something clicked. Even the guy who hit the final shot knew he was not the only one who came through in the clutch.
“We got stops,” Green said. “We started getting rebounds, not allowing them to get second-chance points. We got out in transition. We got easy baskets. Jordan played tremendous. Terrence [Williams] gave us great minutes. Brandon played phenomenal. We’ve got to just continue this.”
The overall statistics for this game will read like another underwhelming night at the office for the Celtics. They lost the battle on the offensive glass, 9-2, and had 13 turnovers after three quarters. Aside from Bass, who scored a team-high 22 points in 37 strong minutes, every Celtics player alternated good possessions with bad ones. Even Paul Pierce, who filled up the box score with 19 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and two blocked shots, added seven turnovers in an uneven performance.
But there was a palpable shift in the final six minutes, when the Celtics suddenly took away everything that had been working for the Cavs. Cleveland scored four points after the 5:49 mark and did not grab a single offensive rebound in that stretch, while the Celtics committed only one turnover the rest of the game.
The Celtics held the Cavs to just one offensive board in the entire second half, none in the fourth quarter, and cut down their own turnovers to only five after halftime. Those adjustments let the Celtics come back despite shooting a worse percentage overall and from 3-point range than the Cavs in the second half.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers‘ choice for his five players to finish the game therefore was fitting. Rivers went with Pierce, naturally, who had hit a short, stumbling fade-away jump shot two possessions earlier to pull Boston within one point. He sent out Terry, whose on-ball defense against Shaun Livingston after Pierce’s shot set up Green’s game-winner. There was Crawford, who scored nine second-half points to keep the Celtics’ hopes alive, and Avery Bradley, who is never far away when great defense is discussed.
And of course there was Green, playing in the city where he underwent life-changing surgery last year, in front of the doctor who performed the procedure to correct Green’s aortic aneurysm, coming through with the highlight that would never have been possible without the defensive efforts put forth minutes earlier. After more than a week of looking out of it, it was fitting that the Celtics finally showed some heart in the city where Green’s heart was fixed.
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