CLEVELAND – Al Horford said Sunday morning that he is proud of his teammate, Isaiah Thomas, for the character he showcased while dealing with major adversity this postseason.
Sunday night, Horford could be proud of all of his teammates for the character they showcased in Cleveland.
The Boston Celtics were without their lone All-Star and leading scorer in Thomas, who is sidelined for the remainder of the Playoffs with a hip injury. They were being laughed at by the nation after two embarrassing losses during Games 1 and 2 back in Boston. They were being looked at as an afterthought, a group that was two games away from being swept out of the postseason by the indomitable Cavaliers.
Then Sunday night happened, when Boston shocked the basketball world – if for only one night – by overcoming a 21-point deficit to earn a stunning 111-108 win at the buzzer during Game 3 in Cleveland.
“We just told each other, ‘No matter what happens, we’ve got to be the hardest-playing team,’ “ Marcus Smart said after the win.
Check that one off the list.
From top to bottom, the Celtics gave max effort and played exceptional team basketball without the services of Thomas. It stayed that way through the final possession of the night, which featured a game-winning 3-pointer from Avery Bradley with 0.1 seconds left on the clock that came as a result of a cut by Jae Crowder, a screen by Al Horford, and a pass by Smart.
“Everybody had to step their game up tonight, especially with one of our brothers down,” Smart said during a walk-off interview with TNT’s David Aldridge. He continued, “Everybody did their part. We got guys – Jonas Jerebko, Al Horford, Kelly Olynyk and Jae Crowder, and Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier – they all came and we all fought, and we chipped away, and like Avery said, we came out with the victory.”
The list truly does not end there. Tyler Zeller and Gerald Green each played seven-plus minutes, and Amir Johnson tallied more than nine. All told, 11 Celtics logged at least seven minutes of playing time, and each and every one of them contributed to the win in one way or another.
That fact doesn’t surprise Brad Stevens, who knows as well as anyone that his players thrive on being overlooked. There was no doubt that the nation discounted the Celtics prior to tip-off.
“We’ve got guys that have chips on their shoulders,” Stevens said. “A lot of these guys have been overlooked, and this is their first opportunity to really play a meaningful role. And as they’ve continued to play and play better and better and better, they’ve just risen in their games and with our team.”
One of those men is Jerebko, who was outstanding Sunday night. The 6-foot-10 Swede, who did not play at all during Game 1 or during the first half of Game 3, was a sparkplug for Boston while totaling 10 points and five rebounds during the second half alone.
He was relentless with his effort at both ends of the court, and as Stevens commented, that effort became contagious.
“He blocked a shot, got a couple of rebounds, kept balls alive,” the coach said. “We just needed just a little jolt. I do think there are times guys that haven’t played quite as much, there’s a real energy and desire to go out and put it all out there.”
Jerebko shined off the bench, while Smart excelled as the team’s new starting point guard.
Smart channeled his inner Thomas as he scored a team-high 27 points that included seven made 3-pointers, both of which set new career highs. All of this came from a player who averaged just 10.6 points per game and shot 28.3 percent from long distance during the regular season, and one who pushed those regular-season struggles out of his mind.
“Coming into this game, I just really wanted to stay positive with myself and make sure that I could do everything that I could do to help my team,” Smart said, “whether that was scoring, passing the ball, playing defense, whatever it was.”
Smart did all of those things, and his teammates did all of those things as well. When a talented team like the Celtics plays with that type of effort and selflessness, it is difficult to beat.
In the end, it was Boston that connected on 10 more field goals than Cleveland. It was the Celtics who dished out 28 assists to the Cavs’ 21. It was the men in green who limited themselves to only nine turnovers, all while forcing 16 out of the men in wine and gold.
These are the things that happen when one team plays harder and more connected than the other.
Boston was that team Sunday night, as it outworked, outshined and outperformed the defending champions on their home floor.
That is something all of the Celtics should be proud of, and something they should aim to do yet again Tuesday night in Game 4.