Tatum, Celtics hold off short-handed Cavaliers to go up 3-1


The Celtics outlasted a feisty Cavaliers team that was without Donovan Mitchell to claim a 109-102 victory and a 3-1 series lead. 

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) grabs his own rebound over Cleveland Cavaliers guard Max Strus (1) during the first half in game four of the second round of the NBA Eastern Conference playoffs at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Danielle Parhizkaran/The Boston Globe

The Celtics outlasted a feisty Cavaliers team that was without Donovan Mitchell to claim a 109-102 victory and a 3-1 series lead. 

Here are the takeaways. 

1. When it was clear Mitchell wouldn’t play, there were two immediate reactions from Celtics fans. 

The first: The Celtics, who won 23 games by 20 or more points this season and who largely took care of business against overmatched teams, should romp. 

The second: The Celtics, who constantly played down to their competition last year, were clearly about to blow this golden opportunity to take a 3-1 lead. 

Initially, the second group looked closer to the truth. The Cavaliers jumped out to an early lead, and Max Strus got free and was red-hot from behind the arc. Meanwhile, the Celtics turned the ball over profusely (10 times in the first half), and they struggled to put the Cavaliers away late. The offense slowed to a crawl late in the fourth, and the Cavs crept back from a 13-point deficit and got within five with less than two minutes remaining.

But Jaylen Brown, who had yet another efficient game in a playoff run full of them so far, buried a triple with just over a minute remaining that pushed the lead to eight and effectively proved to be the dagger. 

“It’s been a while since we kind of like that grind-it-out, tough, back-and-forth, fight-it-out game,” Jrue Holiday said. “So it felt good to really just get out there and execute and know that any type of game we play, we can execute and get the win.”

The win wasn’t pretty, but playoff wins rarely are, and frankly, they don’t have to be. A win is a win, and the Celtics have a chance to close out the series in Boston on Wednesday.

“[A tough game was] to be expected, right?” Jayson Tatum said. “When the best player goes out, everybody has more freedom, more opportunity. And we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. It’s the playoffs, they don’t want to go home. Give them credit, they played hard from beginning to end. They made plays on both ends.”

A reporter asked Joe Mazzulla after the game if he enjoys these high-pressure games. 

“Yes. 1,000 percent,” Mazzulla answered. “And I think the guys do too.”

2. Speaking of Joe Mazzulla quotes, here’s a quick one from his pre-game comments when he was asked how to fight against human nature and the impulse to have a letdown.

“Don’t be human,” Mazzulla quipped. “Be different.”

Whether you like or dislike Mazzulla, you can’t deny that the man is quotable. 

3. Tatum still can’t find his 3-point shot, but he finished with 33 points on 11-for-25 shooting, including a perfect 9-for-9 performance from the free-throw line. He also dished out five assists, including Brown’s dagger 3-pointer, two in transition and two dump offs to Luke Kornet for easy lay-ins. 

Tatum still hasn’t had a breakout playoff game, but he’s stacking good, solid performances in which he does enough to get the team over the hump, and that’s been enough to bring the Celtics to within a game of the Eastern Conference finals. 

4. In a funny moment following Brown’s 3-pointer, Tatum whacked his All-Star teammate so hard in the chest, Brown looked visibly upset for a moment. 

“I didn’t realize how hard I hit him,” Tatum said. “I’ve been lifting a lot lately.”

Tatum needs to have his head on a swivel. 

“I’m going to get Jayson back,” Brown said. “I wasn’t paying attention, and he just comes out of nowhere with a left hook straight to the chest. I’m going to get him back for that.”

5. Brown, meanwhile, scored 27 points on 9-for-15 shooting. He missed two free throws on his first trip to the line, but he finished 7-for-9 at the free-throw line and has looked better in that regard since his disastrously bad performance at the stripe against the Heat. 

Brown drew boos from the Cavaliers’ crowd after an altercation with Max Strus in the first half — Strus appeared to trip on Brown’s head, and Brown appeared to grab Strus’ ankle as he went by. 

The play was deemed a common foul, which enraged Cavaliers fans (and frankly seemed pretty questionable). 

“I embrace it,” Brown said of the boos. “I drove to the basket, felt like there was some contact, finished the play, landed on the ground. I feel like somebody kicking me in the back of the head or I feel like I got the right to remove or at least trying to protect that. I wasn’t trying to do nothing there, trying to trip nobody up, but at the same time, you’re not about to just kick me in the head. It is what it is. I think they made the right call and we move on.”

Incidentally, Brown is shooting 56 percent from the field in the playoffs on 17.7 attempts per game. 

“I don’t think anybody over there could really guard me,” Brown said. “Just getting to the paint, and take my time. And I feel like the s— I’ve been doing, not just [been] in the playoffs, but all season long. So I just get to my spots and just do whatever.”

6. Jrue Holiday was excellent for the second game in a row: 16 points on 6-for-11 shooting, including 4-for-8 from 3-point range. Holiday was even better defensively, however, slowing the Cavaliers’ offense and stifling Strus in the second half after his blazing start. The Cavaliers scored 57 first-half points, but they managed just 21 and 24 points in the third and fourth quarters, and Holiday was easily the team’s best defender. 

“Defensively, just the versatility,” Mazzulla said, when asked about Holiday’s game. “I mean, he must have played five or six different defenses tonight, and he has the ability to communicate those, get the matchups where they need to go, and he’s been great.”

7. Al Horford looked like he struggled defensively again and appeared a little slow against the Cavaliers’ slashers. He was 0-for-4 from 3-point range, and all of his looks were open and make-able. 

Holiday praised Horford for helping him out when Darius Garland got into the paint, including one blocked shot which was initially called a foul but was overturned when Mazzulla challenged the call. 

“Al does everything,” Holiday said. “He has to be the anchor defensively. When Mobley’s on him, he’s open for the 3 offensively and he has knocked those shots in, which he’s been doing pretty well. We put a lot on Al, but he’s built for it.”

We would still contend that it might not hurt to see some Xavier Tillman minutes. It certainly would not hurt if the Celtics were able to close out the series on Wednesday to buy Horford some rest, with the Knicks and Pacers going to (at least) six games. 

8. For the second game in a row, Payton Pritchard made multiple big plays, including this 3-pointer to end the third quarter. 

Pritchard went from putting up huge statlines while the Celtics played the load management game late in the season to a condensed bench role once again, and he still leaves an imprint on every game. Impressive stuff. 

9. LeBron James was in attendance and got a huge ovation from the Cavaliers’ crowd after the team showed a highlight package on the Jumbotron and cut to him sitting courtside. 

James left after Brown’s back-breaking 3-pointer in the fourth. 

10. Wednesday’s game starts at 7 p.m. at TD Garden.

“I’m not surprised at all at how hard [the Cavaliers] played,” Mazzulla said. “I bet they play even better next game.”

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