Celtics hit their primary objective, but failed to overcome bad habits


Monday night’s game was a fight, one that went to the final rounds when the selectively ruthless Celtics should have knocked out the Cavaliers early.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) congratulates guard Jaylen Brown (7) after they defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4 of an NBA second-round playoff series, Monday. (AP Photo/David Dermer)

CLEVELAND – The full scope of the Celtics’ objective became obvious as soon as word came roughly an hour before tipoff that a calf injury would keep Cavaliers dynamo Donovan Mitchell from playing in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Win the game, first and foremost. Of course, no duh, that’s all that matters in the moment.

The Celtics checked that box marked “victory” with a 109-102 decision Monday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. They hold a 3-1 lead as the series heads back to TD Garden on Wednesday. They’re right where they should be.

But for the sake of steeper challenges ahead, there were some relevant addendums attached to that fundamental objective.

Don’t mess around. Don’t become infected by malaise, casualness, or arrogance. Don’t let the undermanned Cavaliers linger. Don’t give hope to a team that should have none.

Those did not all earn a checkmark.

The Celtics didn’t necessarily need to prove that an important lesson has been learned, namely that they’ll no longer play down to the level of a lesser or impaired opponent.

But it would have added another level of encouragement as we cannot resist anticipating a matchup with the fierce defending champion Nuggets, the young-and-hungry Timberwolves, or another opponent that matches the Celtics’ abundance of talent in games to come. The kind of teams that will seize upon an opponent’s lack of focus or intensity every single time.

Instead, the Cavaliers gave the Celtics a fight. Not necessarily a scare, though the Cavaliers, led by Darius Garland’s 30 points and some early sizzling 3-point shooting reminiscent of the Heat’s long-distance barrage in Game 2 of the first round, trailed just 102-97 with 1 minute, 55 seconds left.

But it was a fight, one that went to the final rounds when the selectively ruthless Celtics should have knocked out the Cavaliers early.

It’s important for the Celtics, in this tense and exhilarating (but mostly tense) quest to win an 18th banner, to prove they can win close games with poise and execution at the end.

They sure did win a close game, and they executed well down the stretch Monday, with Jaylen Brown’s 3 pointer with 1 minute, 8 seconds remaining giving the Celtics some breathing room at 105-97. “I don’t think anyone over there can really guard me,’’ he said after his 27-point performance, which gets marked down slightly because of his 1-to-5 assist-to-turnover ratio.

But this one should not have been close. It could even be argued that the Celtics’ performance in this series after losing Game 2 by 24 points on their homecourt has been a minor step back from what they achieved against the Heat, when they won Games 3-5 by an average of 23.3 points.

Now, this is not intended to minimize the good work that many Celtics contributed Monday night. Jayson Tatum scored 33 points, including 16 in the first quarter, powering the Celtics to a 37-30 lead after 12 minutes.

Brown, who drew Cleveland fans’ wrath in the second quarter after tugging on Max Strus’s leg after they got tangled up, seemed juiced up by the boos, scoring 16 of his points in the second half.

And what else is there to say about Jrue Holiday other than, “Oh, right, this guy knows exactly what it takes to win a championship.” Holiday submitted his second straight superb all-around performance, scoring 16 points (including four 3s), grabbing 7 rebounds, dishing out 5 assists, while adding 3 steals and a block.

Tatum and Brown may have combined for 60 points, but Holiday was the Celtics’ best player from beginning to end Monday night.

He said afterward that the Celtics were not surprised by the Cavaliers’ competitiveness, even without their engine, Mitchell.

“We know that they’re not going to come out and just lay down,’’ he said. “We expected this, we kind of wanted it.”

The win was the Celtics’ first by single digits this postseason. They should have taken care of business earlier in the game. But at least they did so in the end, and per Holiday’s quote, maybe they think this — beating a shorthanded team with an abundance of spirit — counts as a valuable experience.

The performance doesn’t answer all of our questions, but beats the alternative – a loss that would have left us asking even more.

The next objective for the Celtics is also obvious. Close the series out on the parquet in Game 5 Wednesday night.

The Celtics should not have any interest in coming back to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse for a sixth game, where the number of annoyances – a public address announcer desperately in need of laryngitis, fire shooting from the scoreboard, lasers, and Tristan Thompson – are staggering.

It’s like the fans came here for the t-shirt toss and a basketball game broke out in the background.

There’s no further reason to deal with that noise and nonsense. Don’t give Mitchell a chance to rise up off the trainer’s table and become a hero.

End this series in five, convincingly, and make real, welcome progress in convincing us that the Celtics’ best habits will win out over their bad ones when the stakes are highest.

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